Mobile offshore drilling units in Gulf should be U.S.-flagged

Aug 5, 2010 12:00 AM

The night of April 20, two explosions on the Marshall Islands-registered Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit (MODU) Deepwater Horizon killed 11 men, and began the incident that would become the worst marine oil spill in United States history. As the weeks progressed and the extent of the catastrophe began to reveal itself, the news coverage of the disaster focused on the environmental and economic damage it is causing — which without a doubt will take a terrible toll. The full truth of what happened needs to come out. To that end, congressional hearings in Washington commenced in May, and joint United States Coast Guard/Minerals Management Service hearings were opened in Kenner, La. Soon after these investigations started, a key question emerged: “Who was actually in charge on board Deepwater Horizon at the time the disaster began?”

There are many ships at sea which carry individuals on board who are not licensed officers, yet have a great deal of say operationally — fishing and oceanographic vessels, for example. On fishing industry ships, there is often a “fishing master” who supervises the setting of nets and ensures that applicable laws pertaining to catching fish are followed.On oceanographic vessels a chief scientist directs all the scientific work done on board. I have experience on both of these types of vessels, and can say that although the men or women in these key positions are in charge of their respective operations and personnel, the licensed captain aboard those vessels always retains his or her authority as master. Evidently, as revealed in the hearings, that’s not how things ran on board Deepwater Horizon.

Transocean owns and operates drilling vessels, which they choose to register foreign-flag to avoid paying taxes to our country and where laws regulating mobile offshore drilling units are more lenient. On their MODUs the master is in command only while the vessel is underway or during an emergency. The chain of command shifts when the vessel is on-station and drilling. At that time an Offshore Installation Manager (OIM), who does not have to be a licensed master, takes over from the captain and is in charge of all vessel operations. Both the licensed captain and the OIM are Transocean employees. Further complicating the situation, a charterer’s representative who is an oil company employee, in this case from BP Plc., is also on board. The “company man” is rarely a licensed mariner, yet makes key operating and safety decisions while on-station and drilling.

During the hearings and in media interviews after the disaster, crewmembers from Deepwater Horizon detailed the difficult workability inherent in the complex chain of command that included the captain, OIM, and BP rig manager. When the gas pressure emergency occurred, the vessel’s International Safety Management Code procedures called for the two senior officials on board, not the captain but the OIM and BP representative, to go to the scene and determine the next course of action. In the crucial minutes immediately after the explosions, while precious time to confront the situation slipped away, the order to activate the emergency disconnect switch and shut down operations was not given by the captain. He admitted waiting to ask permission and verify it was OK with the OIM first. A number of crewmembers told how, in the pandemonium that followed the explosions, lifeboats were filled, lowered and released — all without the captain’s order.

During the hearings it was brought out that, to avoid a conflict of interest which could affect the safety of the ship and crew, the majority of companies operating MODUs have a policy where the licensed captain is also certified and serves as the OIM on board. This way the same individual is in charge whether the vessel is underway, on-station and drilling, or during an emergency. Many professional mariners I’ve talked with are shocked that Transocean allows someone besides a licensed master to be in charge of a MODU while drilling at sea. Unfortunately, there is no International Maritime Organization requirement mandating that an offshore installation manager be a licensed captain as well.

The Marshall Island Registry, which only required Transocean to meet the less stringent international regulations, permitted an unlicensed OIM to be in charge of Deepwater Horizon during drilling operations on the day this disaster began — something that would be illegal under U.S. law. The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 46, 15.520, mandates that on U.S.-flag MODUs, the OIM must also carry a license as a master, and someone serving as master on a MODU must also be endorsed as an OIM. In my opinion, flag-of-convenience operators like Transocean should no longer be allowed to circumvent U.S. law. Every MODU working in United States territorial waters, without exception, ought to be registered in the United States and required to have a licensed captain serving as the OIM. I believe this would make things safer by ensuring that a competent master, who also carries an endorsement as an OIM, would be in charge. The days of “dual command” on MODUs, in my opinion, must come to an end.

The Marshall Islands are half a world away from the Gulf of Mexico, where the oil spill is destroying lives and livelihoods. It could be generations before those impacted by this disaster recover. As the environmental, economic and health impacts we Americans will be facing — and paying for — are slowly realized over the coming years and decades, one thing is clear: the old “business-as-usual” is no longer acceptable.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at

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