Despite finding 200 violations in Gulf drilling operations over the past five years, MMS collected only 16 fines.

Smoke2BP and the other companies involved in the Deepwater Horizon disaster face a host of potential fines under various environmental and safety laws, but a recent Houston Chronicle investigation found that few fines are ever actually collected after drilling accidents. The Minerals Management Service (MMS) — the troubled federal agency which is supposed to regulate the oil and gas industry — collected only 16 fines out of the 400 investigations it conducted into Gulf of Mexico drilling incidents in the past five years. MMS found about 200 violations of safety and environmental regulations, but “many proposed violations get reduced or dropped during behind-the-scenes reviews”:

Each major oil company paid only a single fine related to violations linked to those incidents. Both Chevron and BP spokesmen defended their companies’ safety records and said their employee injury rates are low. […]

It was rare for any oil company to pay penalties for problems found in accidents investigated by the MMS, records show. The agency can charge $35,000 per day per violation. But many proposed violations get reduced or dropped during behind-the-scenes reviews. Records show that most final payments were small and took a year or more to collect. […]

Only three of about 30 companies identified as polluters in MMS reports have so far paid related penalties, records show.

BP, the largest oil producer in the region, had “more accidents and blowouts than any other oil company operating in Gulf waters,” the Chronicle found. The company had “at least” 47 such incidents since 2005. BP also had “one of the biggest delays in fine collections.” In 2002, “two oil well blowouts struck the same [BP] drilling rig in three months” — it took BP five years to pay the fines. Records also showed that “critical safety equipment” had been altered without MMS’ approval prior to a separate 2002 explosion that nearly destroyed a BP rig.