WASHINGTON — A California congressman disclosed Wednesday that the Interior Department failed to assess any civil penalties against the oil industry for six years despite finding thousands of separate safety violations aboard offshore oil rigs in that period.
The 16,000 infractions--more than 1,300 of them on rigs off the California coast--ranged from relatively minor incidents of housekeeping violations to more severe cases of blowouts, oil spills and malfunctioning pollution-control equipment.
None of the companies responsible have been punished with civil fines since mid-1983, when a Louisiana federal court limited the government's enforcement powers and the Interior Department chose not to appeal the court's ruling. Since then, instead of assessing penalties, investigators occasionally have shut down drilling operations until problems are corrected, Interior officials said.
The new attention to government enforcement efforts provided another focus for a rapidly widening dispute between California legislators and the Interior Department over offshore drilling. Emotions have worn raw in recent days as the House moved toward consideration of a sweeping drilling moratorium.
Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who made the Interior Department record on civil penalties public, accused the agency of "scrupulous indifference" to the hazards of drilling. The failure of the Ronald Reagan and Bush administrations to restore the government's power to fine violators, he charged, had allowed the oil industry to act "with impunity."
But Interior officials contended that the department sought only to operate within the law, and charged that the congressman had confused the issue in an attempt to torpedo offshore oil development.
"Our goal is to persuade the American public that offshore drilling is safe and environmentally sound," department spokesman Steve Goldstein said. "And we can't do that if people think the law is laxly enforced."
The data provided to Miller by the Interior Department listed annual totals of inspections conducted by the Minerals Management Service, and the number of violations found. It did not specify the nature of individual infractions, nor say where each had occurred. But the statistics presented a picture of an offshore oil system rife with violations of federal law. Three out of 10 visits by inspectors to oil rigs in the last four years resulted in discoveries of infractions, they said. In 1988, officials found 3,987 "incidents of non-compliance" in 10,604 visits.
MMS Director Barry Williamson, noting that each visit included inspection of as many as 150 separate components, dismissed that figure as misleading. In fact, he said, the oil industry had been found to be in compliance with federal drilling laws more than 99% of the time during 1988.
"We want to make sure we maintain that impeccable and pollution-free environment," he said. "The American people have a decision to make: Do we want foreign oil from foreign tankers or do they think we can do a better job at home?"
In a 40-month period ending in May, 1983, the Interior Department levied 32 civil fines ranging from $1,000 to $173,000 against oil companies to punish their violations of federal drilling laws. That pattern was interrupted by the Louisiana federal court, which overturned the department's regulations on grounds that they gave offenders insufficient time to take corrective action.
'They Are Not Serious'
Interior never appealed that decision or sought to issue new regulations. Because of that inaction, Miller on Monday accused both the Reagan and Bush administrations of making clear that "they are not serious about enforcement of environmental laws covering the oil industry."
"The industry was overjoyed by this decision," Miller said, "and the Interior Department simply chose to do nothing."
Interior officials, however, noted that new Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr. has ordered them to draw up new regulations to restore the power to levy penalties. And they contended that the department's power to shut down oil rigs--at a cost to companies of more than $100,000 a day--was itself a sufficient deterrent to lawbreaking.
"The strongest disincentive we have is the economic hammer to shut down these rigs," Williamson said.
While failing to issue any civil penalties against oil companies in the last six years, the Interior Department won a $750,000 criminal fine against Texaco last November after the company was convicted of deliberately falsifying records of equipment tests on a platform off Santa Barbara. A separate crackdown resulted in a $5-million settlement this month from Tenneco, which had been accused of illegally flaring natural gas.