Steffy: Dearth of data leaves Gulf safety record in the dark

The offshore energy industry touts a stellar safety record in the Gulf of Mexico, but a lack of data on potentially dangerous incidents means we don’t know if the industry has been vigilant or merely lucky.

Responses from readers to my recent column on Black Elk Energy’s platform explosion, which killed three workers, referred to the energy industry’s exemplary safety record over decades of drilling, something repeated so often that it sounds more like an incantation than fact.

Some pointed out that many of Black Elk’s 315 violations in the past two years were probably for minor things like dropped tools.

One reader reasoned that because Gulf platforms typically are inspected annually, and Black Elk operates 98 of them, it has had only 1.6 citations a year for each platform, which doesn’t seem so bad. In fact, he argued that Black Elk’s safety record is “in the ballpark” of the industry average.

All of which amounts to little more than assumptions, which, along with anecdotes and personal experience, comprise far too much of the industry’s lauded safety record. For every offshore worker who tells you the industry operates safely, I can show you one who recounts a horrifying near-death experience.

Searching for details of U.S. offshore safety incidents is more challenging that searching for drops of oil in the vast ocean. They aren’t readily available.

Without public scrutiny, the industry cites the absence of disaster – with a quick disclaimer for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, the Mariner explosion later the same year and now the Black Elk accident – as anecdotal proof that it’s done a pretty good job.

It’s a little like deeming an air-traffic-control system a success because few planes fly into each other. Fortunately for all of us who fly, the government tracks near hits in the sky and makes the data publicly available.

Offshore, it’s not so transparent. We don’t know how many Deepwater Horizons or Black Elks were narrowly averted or if procedures need to change as a result.

While the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement has some information on its website, most is amalgamated statistics, such as a tally of injuries and serious accidents.

That’s not enough useful data to track safety or set goals for improvement, said Don Holmstrom, lead investigator for the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency that investigates chemical and refining accidents and which was asked by Congress to investigate the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“It makes it extremely difficult,” he said. “Some of the things you look at are the trends, the history, breakdowns of the type of facility.”

In the North Sea, regulations are more stringent, and many of the same companies that operate in the Gulf operate there, willingly participating in an oversight regime that uses stricter reporting standards to track safety, identify trends and set goals for improvement.

In the U.S., though, public safety data for offshore work pales even compared with other U.S. regulatory agencies, such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA’s system is far from perfect, but it allows the public to access information by type of accident, by location and by company. It allows comparisons of similar facilities and shows the history of fines.

You can see, for example, if an inspection was the result of an incident or a complaint, and whether a company settled or negotiated fine reductions.

“You can examine inspections,” Holmstrom said. “You can track, to some degree, effectiveness.”

But the offshore industry has fought efforts to make violations transparent, and as a result, the opacity remains.

The industry seems to prefer it that way, relying on luck and anecdotes to supplant meaningful data.

Perhaps, as many in the industry contend, most operators do an exemplary job, and the most visible accidents are the result of a few bad apples.

If so, wouldn’t the good operators want the data to show it?

Instead, we are left with more questions than answers: Is safety improving? Is there more regulation? Is it more effective? Are companies having fewer potentially dangerous incidents, such as hydrocarbon releases? Are they responding to them more quickly?

When it comes to making the Gulf safer, we lack the data to separate supposition from vigilance.

Loren Steffy, loren.steffy@chron.com, is the Chronicle’s business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Follow him online at blog.chron.com/lorensteffy, www.facebook.com/LorenSteffypage and twitter.com/lsteffy.