Kind of an embarrassing moment the other day highlights one of the problems facing oil and gas companies and regulators as they work to improve offshore safety. When asked about SEMS enforcement at a meeting with environmental reporters in New Orleans, the Secretary of the Interior was momentarily flustered over what the letters in SEMS stood for. You can read the story and see the video report on New Orleans TV station WWL here.
In the big picture, that doesn’t mean much. The Secretary of the Interior has a lot on her plate and the important thing is not whether the head of the agency understands SEMS. It is whether the officials who actually enforce the rules understand them. By every indication, the head of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Brian Salerno, and his staff are very focused on the program. Similarly, industry groups like the Center for Offshore Safety and individual companies also take the requirements very seriously.
The danger lies in whether SEMS is really seen as the pathway to future safety improvements by the rest of government and the Congress. Otherwise it could just become another “flavor of the month” government program that is dropped in favor of some other new initiative the next time there is an offshore accident.
That is where industry needs to take some responsibility. There is a natural tendency once a program matures for it to just become “background noise.” The rules are in place, everyone becomes comfortable with them and they go onto autopilot. Industry needs to fight that temptation, because if SEMS is seen as routine by industry and forgettable by government, who knows what will take its place.