Feds advance plan stressing ‘safety culture’ values offshore

Federal offshore drilling regulators on Wednesday sought to prod oil and gas companies to adopt a “safety culture” following lethal accidents in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said in a “policy statement” that it would monitor safety culture as it polices companies and contractors working offshore. And with seven questions, the agency invited oil and gas companies to weigh in on the approach.

“The (bureau) defines safety culture as the core values and behaviors resulting from a collective commitment by leaders and individuals to emphasize safety over competing goals to ensure protection of people and the environment,” the agency said in the draft statement.

The move comes as the offshore energy bureau draws scrutiny for not conducting audits of newly mandated safety programs and weeks after a fatal fire on a production platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

Federal officials are still investigating what caused the explosion on Nov. 16 at a platform owned by Houston-based Black Elk Energy. The company has briefed congressional staff and federal investigators on the incident and is conducting an internal probe.

Bureau director James Watson said the new policy statement “is at the core of (the agency’s) guiding principle of safety at all levels at all times.”

“From the boardroom to the control room, this policy pushes us all to a safer offshore environment,” Watson said in a statement.

The bureau highlighted nine attributes of a robust safety culture, including careful planning of work activities, a pervasive sense of personal accountability and clear demonstrations that company leaders are committed to safety in their decisions and actions.

The offshore energy bureau said it was drawing inspiration from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s work with the nuclear industry’s  leaders to promote safety after the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s “safety culture policy . . . provides a strong foundation for a similar approach for oil and gas operations on the (outer continental shelf),” the bureau said.

Panels that investigated the 2010 Gulf oil spill widely blamed the  disaster on “systemic failures” and urged industry to take steps to promote safety offshore. The presidential commission that probed the spill highlighted the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations, an industry-funded watchdog that grades facilities and publicly shames poor performers at an annual conference.

But the oil industry, which has since created its own Center for Offshore Safety, has noted the stark differences between nuclear power sector — with a handful of plants nationwide — and the much larger pool of offshore drilling operators, contractors and supply companies.

Jim Noe, executive vice president of the drilling contractor Hercules Offshore and the head of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition, said that “the industry hasn’t been waiting around for a policy document to build a strong safety culture.”

He noted that at Hercules, all employees have the authority to stop work they believe is dangerous, bonuses are based largely on safety and every operational meeting begins with a review of the firm’s safety results.

“We take safety seriously not because the federal government tells us so,” Noe said. “We do it because the most important thing that we can do as a company is to bring our employees back home safely.”