Feds launch new offshore safety institute

Three years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster put a new focus on the risks of offshore drilling, the Interior Department on Wednesday announced it will create a new institute focused on boosting the safety of coastal oil and gas development.

It’s not yet clear what the new “Ocean Energy Safety Institute” will  look like — or even where it will  be based — but the initiative will aim at helping federal regulators  keep pace with rapidly evolving technology for extracting oil and gas from under the sea floor.

Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director James Watson said that is key as the industry moves “into deeper water and deeper geologic plays that require technological innovation to bring projects into production.”

And Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes stressed the importance of ensuring “all segments of industry, government, academia and other stakeholders…stay informed about and engaged in changes in offshore energy development as they occur.”

“The continued shift of the offshore oil and gas industry into deeper water and frontier areas requires new expertise for offshore workers and the regulators who oversee leasing, environmental reviews, exploration, development and production operations,” Hayes added.

An offshore energy advisory committee made up of environmentalists, engineers and government officials recommended such a federal safety institute in January.

The group envisioned a federal offshore safety institute as a way to formalize the kind of information sharing between government regulators and industry scientists in the summer of 2010, when they huddled in a Houston command center strategizing ways to rein in BP’s runaway Macondo well.

Federal officials have said the institute could bring together the industry’s smartest minds, along with environmentalists, regulators and other stakeholders. In a news release, the safety bureau said the institute would provide “a program of research, technical assistance and education and serve as a center of expertise in oil and gas exploration, development and production technology.” According to the safety bureau, while the institute would have no regulatory power over the offshore industry, it would serve as “an important source of unbiased, independent information.”

A major goal would be coordinating research and synthesizing data from other sources to inform the bureau’s future regulations. But the safety bureau said it could also provide a forum for educating and training government employees to make sure they aren’t outmatched by the oil and gas industry they regulate.

In a federal notice, the bureau said the institute would facilitate research and development as well as the training of federal workers on how to identify and verify best available and safest technology offshore. The center wouldn’t focus exclusively on drilling or production, and research would include work on environmental protection, containing blowouts and responding to oil spills.

“All relevant segments of industry, government, academia and other stakeholders need to stay informed about and engaged in changes in offshore energy development as it occurs, rather than lagging behind technology advances,” the safety bureau said in the notice. “This will help ensure that tragedies like the Deepwater Horizon accident never happen again.”

The center also could be a proving ground for standards to govern a new era of drilling and possible oil production in Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast. The offshore energy advisory committee urged the Interior Department swiftly develop new standards specifically geared toward the challenges of drilling, operating and producing oil in the remote, icy region.

“The institute provides a unique opportunity for all engaged parties to work together to identify and deploy technology that will make a real and enduring difference,” said Thomas Hunter, the former Sandia National Laboratory director who headed the ocean energy safety committee.

Although the Interior Department has funding to begin the program now, future spending would be up to Congress. A federal notice on the project said total estimated program funding would be up to $5 million over a five-year period.

The safety bureau on Wednesday issued a call for proposals to manage and run the new institute, which ultimately could be housed at a university or some other entity.

The institute would be completely separate from the industry-backed Center for Offshore Safety, which was launched after the 2010 oil spill. Organized by the American Petroleum Institute and headed by Shell’s former chief well scientist, the Center for Offshore Safety has focused on helping oil and gas companies develop robust safety and environmental management programs for assessing and limiting risks offshore. The center also has scrutinized how visits from top executives can affect safety performance offshore.

It also ultimately may be authorized to certify auditors who can conduct federally required third-party audits of oil and gas companies’ safety and environmental management programs.

Brian Straessle, a spokesman for API, said the group will continue working with the government to enhance offshore safety, and hopes the new institute “will effectively complement industry’s leadership.”