Feds to collect info on ‘near misses’ offshore

The federal government on Wednesday moved to fill a major gap in overseeing the safety of offshore oil and gas development, by pledging to develop a system for tracking near-miss incidents that could be a harbinger of bigger problems.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics said they would collaborate on the project, with the goal of getting a new confidential reporting system online within a year.

The decision follows a series of incidents at oil and gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico, including a gas well blowout in July and a fatal platform fire last November.

“The system will expand the ability of (the safety bureau) and industry to capture essential information about accident precursors and potential hazards associated with offshore operations,” the agency said in a statement. “The confidential near miss reports will save lives, reduce injuries, and help prevent potentially devastating environmental events on the outer continental shelf.”

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The move dovetails with recommendations from the Chemical Safety Board and the presidential commission that probed the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which said offshore drillers’ focus on individual worker injuries can blind them to warning signs of more fundamental process safety problems.

Collecting data about close calls offshore — those unexpected incidents that didn’t cause injuries but might have — can help regulators and industry identify problems with equipment or practices and proactively fix them across the board.

Other sectors and federal regulators already harvest information about narrow escapes. For instance, the air industry has been collecting near-miss data from pilots in the cockpit, air traffic controllers and other aviation workers for more than three decades. That safety reporting system, supported by the Federal Aviation Administration but administered by NASA, was initially viewed skeptically. But in part because of its confidential approach, it now is widely used and credited with helping to avert airborne disasters.

It was not immediately clear what type of near-misses might be captured by the new offshore oil and gas reporting system — or whether federal regulations might ultimately be necessary to force operators to hand over the information. For now, at least, the safety bureau said it would rely on voluntarily reported data from industry workers and federal personnel, with the aim of gathering “previously difficult-to-obtain information on safety incidents.”

One possibility is better tracking of kicks, those episodes when oil, natural gas or other fluids enter wells. Left uncontrolled, kicks can escalate to full well blowouts. Monitoring how often those kicks are happening — and how long it takes crews to respond — could be key for regulators and industry to identify problems with equipment or training.

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Notably, just one month before it exploded, BP’s failed Macondo well had a kick that went unnoticed for 33 minutes. On the night that same well fatally blew out in 2010, it took drillers about 40 minutes to recognize a kick had occurred — too late to stop explosive gas from spilling into the rig.

Right now, only relatively rare incidents must be publicly reported, witnesses told the Chemical Safety Board during a hearing in Houston last year. The reported incidents happen so infrequently they cannot adequately be used to monitor trends and assess safety improvements, they said.

The Center for Offshore Safety, created by the American Petroleum Institute after the 2010 spill, has plans to eventually collect and analyze incident data from its members. Center director Charlie Williams told FuelFix last year that he wants to create a database that contains blinded results of safety program audits as well as information on near-misses and incidents.

Under the agreement announced Wednesday, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics will maintain control of the individual confidential reports but will provide trend analysis and statistical data to the safety bureau.