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Under International law, offshore oil rigs like the Deepwater Horizon are treated as ships, and companies are allowed to "register" them in unlikely places such as the Marshall Islands, Panama and Liberia — reducing the U.S. government's role in inspecting and enforcing safety and other standards.
Reporting from Washington — The Deepwater Horizon oil rig that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico was built in South Korea. It was operated by a Swiss company under contract to a British oil firm. Primary responsibility for safety and other inspections rested not with the U.S. government but with the Republic of the Marshall Islands — a tiny, impoverished nation in the Pacific Ocean.
Senior members of Congress — including Oberstar and House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.) — have begun looking into the inspection and staffing issues. The House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation will hold a hearing Thursday on foreign-flagged rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
Different types of rigs are classified differently, and the Marshall Islands assigned the Deepwater Horizon to a category that permitted lower staffing levels.
Brown's lawyer and others say the Marshall Islands licensed the Deepwater Horizon in a way that allowed rig operator Transocean Ltd. to place an oil drilling expert — the so-called offshore installation manager — ahead of a licensed sea captain in making decisions on the day of the explosion.
The dual command structure created confusion that delayed an effective response to the growing crisis aboard the Deepwater Horizon, he and others allege.
Officials at Transocean and the Marshall Islands reject the claims. They say they fulfilled all requirements of the law and met the highest industry standards, and those of the Coast Guard.