Independent reviews suggested as way to keep offshore safety current

Regularly scheduled reviews of offshore oil and gas safety and environmental standards and practices could help assure that the complacency prevalent before the 2010 Macondo deepwater well blowout and subsequent oil spill doesn’t resurface, an environmental organization official suggested.

Elgie Holstein, senior director for strategic planning at the Environmental Defense Fund, said the National Academies of Science or some other independent group with the necessary expertise and stature possibly could conduct such reviews as each federal 5-year US Outer Continental Shelf program was being developed.

“It may take outside bodies—both regulators and independent scientists—to identify areas which need to be addressed as the industry moves into more challenging regions and depths,” Holstein said during an Oct. 2 discussion of offshore oil and gas safety at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director James A. Watson, who also participated, said Holstein’s idea intrigued him.

“In an industry that’s constantly moving forward, I think you need another mechanism,” he said. “It’s constantly pressing technology and management systems into higher-risk areas. I think there’s a role for someone to point out that this is happening, and that a time-out might be necessary.”

Troublesome trend

The discussion’s moderator, Michael R. Bromwich, a consultant and nonresident CSIS advisor, oversaw the 2010-11 restructuring of federal offshore oil and gas regulatory enforcement following the Macondo incident and spill. He warned that the strong offshore oil and gas safety emphasis that followed Macondo is being replaced by a focus on speed in approving drilling and other permits. Ways to break down barriers to improvement need to be found and instituted instead, he said.

“The key point is sustained learning, along with generated information,” observed Charlie Williams, executive director of the Center for Offshore Safety, which the US oil and gas industry established after Macondo. “There’s a lot of research in disparate places, but we need to assure there aren’t gaps in safety technology.”

Major oil companies operating in the Gulf created the Marine Well Containment Co. in 2010 when it became obvious offshore spill control and containment technology had not kept pace as exploration and production moved into deeper water, Williams continued. MWCC might be one place to start sharing information, he said.

Norway’s approach

Svein Erik Eide, vice-president of drilling and well technology at Statoil ASA, said Norway uses a collaboration of producers, regulators, and labor unions to handle offshore safety and environment issues.

“There’s a human factor behind all accidents,” Eide said, adding, “We can address it by sharing information and analyzing data at all times.”

When the Norwegians evaluated their own system after Macondo, they found rig workers were well trained as petroleum engineers but didn’t understand planning and execution of essential tasks, Eide said. “Half of our production comes from deep water in the North Sea. Not having capping and containment systems was a real surprise in 2010.”

Eide said nine companies stepped forward and helped develop offshore spill control and containment systems for the four regions of the world in which Statoil operates.

Holstein said the essential question was whether the oil and gas industry and its regulators can maintain rigorous safety and environmental standards amid budget cuts and political pressures. “Indeed, in the presidential race, there’s much discussion of whether we’re moving fast enough [to develop domestic oil and gas resources], and I expect it to be part of tomorrow night’s debate,” he said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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