Amid the drama of the Gulf Coast oil spill, the Coast Guard has emerged so far with the fewest scars. While President Obama has been blamed for his restrained response and unemotional reaction to the developing disaster and federal regulators have been slapped for their weak oversight of offshore oil drillers, tough-talking Adm. Thad Allen has generally earned kudos for putting pressure on BP to live up to its responsibilities.
But recently Allen has faced tough questions about his tendency to trust the word of BP's executives. And a close examination of the Guard's oversight of marine safety over the past decade and a half raises questions about its suitability for that role and its deference to industry.
As the country's chief marine safety regulator, the Coast Guard has argued in Congress that its role should be enlarged and that it needs more money to ensure worker safety on offshore rigs. When it comes to offshore drilling, the Coast Guard oversees the safety of systems at the platform level of a rig -- including the safety and health of workers as they perform their routine tasks -- while the Interior Department's much-criticized Minerals Management Service has oversight of the drilling systems under the platform. Though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's jurisdiction extends to offshore activities, the agency signed an agreement with the Coast Guard in 1979 to cede most of that responsibility to the Guard.
The service's regulations governing drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf have not been updated since 1996 -- some rules date back to 1978 -- despite major changes in the industry, especially the introduction of technologically-advanced rigs that drill thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean.
The Coast Guard officer who supervised the last inspection of the Deepwater Horizon, Lt. Cmdr. Michael Odom, admitted to a federal panel last month that the service's oversight of rigs should be more rigorous: "The pace of the technology has outrun the current regulations."
The service's inspectors visited the Deepwater Horizon nine times without finding any major issues, testified Capt. Verne Gifford who heads inspections and casualty investigations for the Coast Guard's New Orleans District.
The Guard was sharply criticized at congressional hearings in 2007, where several lawmakers expressed concern that its marine safety oversight was being shortchanged due to its increased security function in the wake of 9/11 and due to the constant rotation of inspectors.
At the hearings, industry members criticized the service for being heavy-handed in its inspections and Adm. Allen responded by saying that he was establishing a new position at Coast Guard headquarters to be in direct contact with industry and to address such concerns.
The concern for industry seems to be a high priority at the service. In a Coast Guard newsletter from the spring of 2010, the former chief of the Guard's Office of Standards Evaluation and Development emphasized that the Guard's goal "is not only to ensure safety but also to see that the standards developed do not put U.S. industry at a competitive disadvantage."
Howard L. Hime adds that the Guard's standards program seeks to improve the competitiveness of industry by "removing regulatory and other barriers that impede productivity and a free flow of commerce."
Hime charts the rollercoaster history of marine safety regulations -- after arising in the 1830s in the wake of some tragic steamboat accidents and gradually becoming more comprehensive over the decades, the focus shifted in the mid-1990s. The Guard instituted regulatory reform in 1995, eliminating what Hime refers to as "outdated or inefficient" regulations and adopting industry standards:
"Becoming an integral part of this process [joining standards organizations] has enabled the Coast Guard to avoid drafting unnecessarily detailed regulations, and, in some cases, to avoid regulation completely."
As a result, the Guard has adopted approximately 450 industry standards, saving "potentially thousands of pages of federal regulations..."
Such regulatory reform across government has weakened crucial safety regulations over the years and led to the tragic disaster in the Gulf, says Richard Charter, an offshore drilling expert at Defenders of the Wildlife. "It's been insidious and continually spreading and it has led to this mess."
He emphasizes that Coast Guard officials are smart and well-intentioned and that their spill response efforts have been exemplary. But he cautions that their marine safety function may be hampered by their new homeland security responsibilities and their oversight function has been undercut by regulatory reform.
"if you have the right mission statement and change a few laws, then the Coast Guard could be doing what we need them to do in terms of safety on the rigs," Charter explains.