The industry needs to internalize a robust safety culture to help the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement do its job, BSEE Director James A. Watson told delegates Apr. 30 at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston.
“Our ability to ensure the highest level of safety and responsibility in the world depends in large part on the ability of the industry to internalize the need for a robust safety culture; to understand that safety does not simply mean doing things right when the BSEE inspector is on board. It means operating safely at all levels at all times,” Watson said.
Since the Apr. 20, 2010, blowout of the deepwater Macondo well off Louisiana and subsequent explosion on the Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible drilling rig, the US government imposed new regulations and reorganized the former US Marine Mineral Services.
BP PLC operated the Macondo well. Watson told industry it must never forget the 11 crew members who were killed and the massive oil spill that resulted in the Gulf of Mexico.
“We have built a strong, effective regulatory program that has become a model for developed and emerging regulators around the world,” he said.
In particular, Watson referred to the a drilling safety rule, issued as an emergency rule, that implemented higher standards for well design, casing and cementing practices, and blowout preventers, among other new safety requirements.
He also cited the workplace safety rule, which implemented performance-based standards, requiring companies to implement and maintain safety and environmental management system programs.
“The oil and gas industry has responded—creating from scratch and deploying subsea containment technologies and capabilities, building more robust response capabilities, and meeting the new regulatory requirements,” in the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
Noting he was pleased to hear about rising rig counts in the gulf, Watson added that he is “cautious about the potential for this increased activity to increase the risks associated with offshore drilling.”
He said regulators must continue to adapt to keep pace with industry as it adopts rapidly advancing technologies.
BSEE making changes
BSEE has been working to improve its own efficiency, and this has included hiring 28 engineers and 46 inspectors in 2 years. BSEE looks to hire another 200 people to conduct permit and spill response plan reviews, inspect offshore facilities, and ensure environmental compliance.
“I am very pleased that we recently received approval to pay employees in critical career fields, such as petroleum engineering, up to 25% above the federal salary schedule,” Watson said.
“Hiring that we do now does not automatically translate into more inspections and more permit reviews immediately,” Watson said. “However, the investments we are making now in time and training will ensure we are able to keep pace with the increasing activity…and continue to reduce risks and promote safety.”
He said much attention has been focused on the number of drilling permits and the number of incidents of noncompliance (INC) issued since the Deepwater Horizon incident.
Watson said it’s not BSEE’s goal to approve a certain number of permits or issue a certain number of INCs.
“Rather, we must use our full suite of authorities and resources, employing both prescriptive and performance based standards to instill safe practices at all levels, at all times,” he said. “And, I want to be clear: that firm hand, the actual enforcement actions such as INCs or civil penalties, will continue to be applied when appropriate.”
Although BSEE’s predecessor chose not to exercise its authority to hold contractors accountable, Watson said BSEE will enforce regulations in every case, and will issue INCs or civil penalties as appropriate.
“We will do this in a measured and consistent way, and with consideration to all the factors contributing to the violation, but we will not turn away from exercising our full authority,” he said.
One of BSEE’s responsibilities is to issue clearly defined, meaningful regulations, he said. The agency is working on a draft rule to update oil and gas production safety systems regulations, which have not had a major revision since 1988.
“Since that time, production has moved into deeper and deeper water, and regulations have simply not kept pace with technological advances,” Watson said. “These revisions will provide BSEE a powerful regulatory tool that can be used in the future to incorporate new technologies into the program.”
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