Gas carrier vessel traffic in U.S. ports has increased from about 1,200 in 2011 to more than 3,200 in 2020. Ships that transport liquefied natural gas and other highly combustible gases could pose safety and environmental risks. The U.S. Coast Guard is required to conduct compliance exams for these gas carriers annually, but the Government Accounatbility Office (GAO) has found that a shortage of marine inspectors sometimes leads to exam delays.
The Coast Guard has an overall shortage of approximately 400 marine inspectors, according to its workforce modeling, which affects its ability to conduct gas carrier compliance exams. GAO analysis of the data shows that from 2016 through 2020 the Coast Guard staffed the key operational field units that conduct gas carrier exams at below 70 percent of their estimated need. Coast Guard officials stated they completed all required exams, but representatives from six of nine industry stakeholders told GAO they sometimes experienced costly delays because marine inspectors were not available.
The Coast Guard has ongoing initiatives to address its marine inspection workforce challenges. In addition, the Gas Carrier Center of Expertise has taken steps to mitigate delays by sending its staff to assist sectors with compliance exams each year, according to Coast Guard officials. For example, in fiscal year 2021, officials reported assisting sectors conduct 100 compliance exams. Further, the Gas Carrier Center of Expertise has developed a tool to help decide which sectors to prioritize when determining the marine inspectors to select for future gas carrier training courses.
The Coast Guard’s gas carrier compliance exam process currently includes assembling a team of marine inspectors who review documentation about the vessel prior to the vessel’s arrival, including its history and the results of previous Coast Guard inspections; board the vessel to review additional documentation and observe and test such things as ship systems and crew knowledge (e.g., using fire-fighting equipment) to identify any deficiencies; and document the results of the exam. Gas carrier compliance exams generally take between 4 and 6 hours.
GAO’s review found that the Coast Guard regularly updates gas carrier exam policies and procedures to reflect industry changes. For example, according to Coast Guard officials, every four years they update the key guidance document for conducting the exams. Representatives from all nine gas carrier industry stakeholders stated marine inspectors are well trained and the exams are thorough.
The watchdog notes however that the Coast Guard has not considered potential gas carrier exam efficiencies in the context of potential risks when assessing its policies and procedures. For example, it has not assessed the benefits and risks of adopting a risk-based inspections approach. GAO analysis of Coast Guard data shows that marine inspectors identified low instances of more serious deficiencies that pose a risk to the cargo, vessel, or crew during gas carrier compliance exams from fiscal years 2016 through 2020—about 12 percent (250 out of 2,075). Further, Coast Guard officials stated that gas carriers are generally well run. However, given the nature of their cargo, gas carriers present safety concerns.
The Coast Guard has previously considered developing legislative change proposals to reduce the annual exam requirement. However, GAO found it did not conduct a risk assessment for the potential legislative change.
GAO has therefore recommended that the Coast Guard conduct an assessment of adopting a risk-based approach to conducting gas carrier compliance exams and take actions, as appropriate and feasible. The Department of Homeland Security concurred with this recommendation and will work to meet it by December 30, 2022.