Faced with questions about its commitment to safety, the Interior Department sent teams to the Gulf of Mexico last week to inspect giant cranes used in offshore oil and gas operations that are a significant source of accidents.
More than 50 inspectors, traveling on helicopters, conducted surprise inspections on about 40 offshore platforms and drilling rigs, said Jason Mathews, the head of offshore safety management for the Gulf of Mexico at the department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.
The results were still being compiled, he said, but the inspectors found serious problems, including some that were potentially life threatening. “There are still some major incidents that are occurring, and we need to figure out why,” Mr. Mathews said on Friday.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had discussed plans for the inspection push this month after the safety bureau issued an alert to offshore oil and gas operators in the Gulf. It warned about a series of “potentially catastrophic crane and lifting incidents” that occurred late last year on platforms and drilling rigs.
No one was killed or injured in those crane incidents, but lifting-related accidents are the second-largest cause of offshore fatalities, outnumbered only by fires and explosions, agency records show. The cranes are used to move workers and supplies from the Gulf up to the decks of the platforms.
The Interior Department and its offshore safety bureau have been under a spotlight since the agency was ordered by President Trump to re-evaluate regulations enacted during the Obama administration in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010, which killed 11 offshore workers and created the largest marine oil spill in drilling history. Many offshore oil and gas operators, and other Gulf Coast businesses that serve them, complained that the regulatory response to the accident had been excessive.
The focus of the regulatory review has been two safety rules that govern offshore drilling and the production of oil and gas. But the deregulatory push has also meant that progress has slowed, if not stopped, on finalizing other safety rules, including a 2015 proposal to enact new standards for offshore crane safety.
The New York Times reported this month that several of the independent companies seeking the regulatory rollbacks had been cited for workplace safety violations in recent years at a rate much higher than the industry average.
The recent crane accidents included one on Nov. 29, when the 110-foot arm of a crane made a “loud pop” and then “fell uncontrollably” to the side of the rig, according to an internal agency incident report. The crane had just been used to lift four workers between a supply ship and a drilling rig working 50 miles offshore. Before the arm came to a rest, it punched a hole in a fuel tank and caused a diesel fuel spill that left a 50-yard-wide sheen for five miles, the report said.
In another incident in mid-December, a bundle of tubing weighing hundreds of pounds fell as it was being lifted by a crane. A large pipe slipped out and dropped 120 feet, missing workers who were on a ship below, the agency said.
One worker did die in December on a drilling ship in a lift-related accident when a pipe-moving device — not a crane — crushed him.
“No one wants to face the family of a worker who dies or is severely injured because we didn’t do our jobs correctly, or because we failed to recognize that the risks present on site were beyond acceptable bounds,” Brian Salerno, then the head of the offshore safety agency, said in remarks to industry officials in July 2015 after the new crane safety rules were proposed.
“So let’s see what we can do to reverse those trends,” he said.
But the problem has only worsened since then, according to Interior Department records released to The Times. The rate of lift-related offshore accidents last year increased by more than 4 percent, reaching the second-highest annual level in the past decade. On average, there was one incident for every 13.5 offshore platforms or drilling rigs, according to agency data.
Arena Offshore was among the companies that had multiple lift-related accidents. In one, a worker was severely injured when he was pinned against a handrail as crews were using a crane to lift a 10,000-pound construction tool house. The operator of the crane could not see the area where the offshore worker was standing, investigators found.
In another case, involving Energy XXI, a motor failed, making it impossible to control the crane. A basket carrying four workers swung out of control, injuring three of them, an incident report says.
Arena Offshore, Energy XXI and Fieldwood Energy, which has also been cited in recent crane accident investigations, had joined with other offshore companies in 2016 to lobby the Interior Department to weaken certain offshore federal regulations, records show.
Last week’s inspections, conducted on Tuesday and Wednesday, resulted in noncompliance notices for some offshore operators, which could result in fines, Mr. Mathews said. Among the serious and potentially life-threatening problems detected was a crane on a Fieldwood facility in the Gulf’s shallow waters that was being used in a way that exceeded its design specifications.
Arena Offshore and Energy XXI did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Fieldwood, which last month filed for bankruptcy, said, “We are constantly evaluating and enhancing our safety program and culture to ensure the safety of our employees and the environment.”
The crane inspections are part of a broader effort to make safety inspections more focused on risks rather than routine scheduling, meaning inspectors concentrate on known hazards like gas leaks, or on companies that have a history of safety violations. The risk-based approach has been suggested to the Interior Department for several years by the Government Accountability Office.
Mr. Zinke and Scott Angelle, who now leads the offshore safety agency, announced this month that a risk-based program was formally in place, but questions remain about the agency’s commitment to safety.
Last month, a group of 19 Senate Democrats wrote to Mr. Zinke questioning why the agency had issued a stop-work order for a study by the National Academy of Sciences that was looking at ways to reduce offshore accidents.
“The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill demonstrated how devastating a leak can be from an improperly inspected and managed offshore rig,” the senators, led by Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island, wrote.
Public Citizen, a nonprofit group, compiled a database of campaign contributions to Mr. Angelle, who ran for governor in Louisiana in 2015, and compared it with a list of the companies fined by his agency in the last five years. The group found that Mr. Angelle had accepted more than $140,000 in campaign contributions from companies his agency has regulated.
“What are the penalties now going to be for these companies where the agency finds violations?” asked Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen. “The contributions and closeness between Mr. Angelle to the industry suggest they will get a slap on the wrist at best.”
Mr. Angelle rejected the criticism as unfounded, through a spokesman, and said his agency was committed to safe operations in the Gulf.
“Scott Angelle has been adamant and quite vocal in his communications to both staff and industry that any Outer Continental Shelf exploration, development and production must be done safely and in an environmentally sustainable manner,” Guy Hayes, an agency spokesman, said in a statement.