Smaller oil and gas companies operating in U.S. offshore waters need to pay close attention to the message that is coming out of Washington these days. That message is that the government expects them to maintain high safety standards and focus on preventing incidents, regardless of their size or any unique types of hazards they may face on their facilities. Now it looks like companies may face targeted inspections.
Here’s why. The government’s challenge in enforcing offshore safety and environmental laws is finding a way to even a very uneven playing field. Offshore oil and gas operations are a world of contrasts. Shelf and deepwater. Drilling, production and decommissioning. Old and new facilities. Large operators and small operators. Each different type of operation has its own hazards and risks.
Yet BSEE must push for the safest and most environmentally sound approach for the entire industry. The deepwater Macondo incident and the regulations that follow highlight the problem. Macondo was a large-scale disaster, both in loss of life and environmental harm. The goal of the post-Macondo initiatives was to prevent that kind of accident from happening again. There may be little chance that a smaller facility could have an incident on a Macondo scale, may they do have more, smaller-scale incidents.
How can the agency address both large-scale and smaller-scale incidents? Officials with the agency appear to be wrestling with just that problem. Last month, BSEE Director Brian Salerno wrote in an online blog that there is a discrepancy in offshore safety. The Center for Offshore Safety has released its second annual safety report and it shows that COS members did not experience any fatalities or and one loss of well control in 2013 and 2014. However, Salerno points out that the overall safety statistics for the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf showed three fatalities and eight well control incidents in 2013 alone. The Director also points out that in 2013, COS members reported 23 lifting incidents versus 197 for all operators. He concludes that “The disparity in numbers demonstrates that the COS membership is comprised of companies that have made a real commitment to safety. It makes sense that their performance in preventing such incidents would exceed industry norms.”
He is not saying that other operators do not share the same commitment to safety, but it is implied. COS’s members are generally deepwater operators who have larger and newer projects. Many of them have sold off the shelf projects which carry the headaches of older, smaller and lower profit-margin shelf projects. Who bought them? Generally the operators who are not members of COS. Those operators need to pay close attention to the words of Director Salerno. BSEE is holding them to the same standard as the largest, most financially sound operators.
But COS members also need to be careful about not resting on their safety record. As we have seen deepwater incidents carry the potential for enormous consequences.
Where does BSEE go next? The agency is sending signals that it wants to shift to a risk-based inspection program. One of the bullet points raised by BSEE officials at the September COS forum was the potential to use “SEMS Maturity as a factor in the Risk Based Inspection program.” That means BSEE could factor plan sophistication into its decisions on who to inspect and how often. It could look at previous incidents, equipment maintenance or other factors and target companies that don’t have what Director Salerno calls “a real commitment to safety.”
This is not the time for either large or small operators to be complacent about their approach to safety.