Should vessels have Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) plans that align with their offshore oil customers’ SEMS plans?  On September 10th, the Coast Guard published an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) which would require SEMS plans for certain vessels working on the Outer Continental Shelf.

This may be one of the most significant regulatory changes facing the vessels that work in the oil and gas world.  the Coast Guard says it “intends for this SEMS to be developed and implemented by the vessel’s owner or operator and compatible with a designated lease operator’s SEMS required under Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) regulations. The Coast Guard seeks comments on whether a SEMS that incorporates the management program and principles of API RP 75 is appropriate for vessels engaged in OCS activities, would reduce risk and casualties, and improve safety on the OCS.”

The rule could  affect 2200 vessels:

  • 1,800 Offshore Supply Vessels (OSVs),
  • 150 liftboats,
  • 125 MODUs,
  • 125 other vessels.

What’s behind the proposal?

Probably a lot of things, starting with the need to align MODUs with SEMS.   SEMS is centered around managing safety and environmental requirements on facilities.    On drilling projects, the operator has to have the SEMs plan but the facility is a MODU, and much of the facility-specific information is under the control of the drilling company.  Both BSEE and the USCG want to make sure there is no disconnect between the operator’s SEMS and the driller’s safety program.   By taking the lead in requiring MODUs to have SEMS plans, the Coast Guard may be sidestepping an inter-agency squabble over whether which agency controls safety on the vessels.

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But there is more at stake with this rulemaking because it affects more than just MODUs.  The reasoning for the Coast Guard is that the ISM code is not specific to offshore energy sectors, “this Code assumes a vessel’s mission is international transportation of cargo, not OCS activities.”  Translation: ISM fits some but not all of the safety framework of offshore operations.   For example, many crew members on an offshore construction vessel are not “seafarers” under STCW.    The Coast Guard wants to close those gaps.

Finally, there is a deeper reason for this proposal.    The Coast Guard regulations have not kept up with technology.   The last revision to the Subchapter N regulations governing OCS safety came out before the first deepwater facility was even in production.   Today, a lot of well activities are done on the ocean floor by workboats using ROVs.   These boats fall into a regulatory shadow, largely outside the direct authority of BSEE and beyond the expertise of most Coast Guard personnel.    The proposal would be one way to oversee those operations and provide the regulatory muscle to make sure operator SEMS and vessel safety programs are in line with each other.

An ANPRM is the first step towards a new regulation.  It is when the agency asks industry and the public what the future regulations need to look like.     In this case, the public comment period is open until December 9, 2013.    Industry needs to take advantage of this opportunity to have its say.

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