New offshore energy regulator warns ‘risk does not discriminate’

Three years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster and 25 years after an explosion killed 167 people on the Piper Alpha platform in the North Sea, offshore oil workers and their overseers must guard against complacency, the top U.S. offshore drilling regulator insisted Tuesday.

In his inaugural speech as head of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Brian Salerno said the challenge is remaining vigilant as those episodes fade into the distance.

“With any highly visible disaster that garners international media attention, there comes a point when the cameras turn off, the stories fade into distant memories and people believe the problems have been fixed, and their focus shifts,” Salerno told health and safety regulators representing eight countries at a forum in Perth, Australia.

Coming soon: Feds to release new rules for offshore emergency equipment this year

But a series of incidents in shallow Gulf waters over the past year — including a lethal explosion during maintenance work on a production platform — illustrate “the inherent risks associated with all offshore activities,” Salerno said.

“These tragic incidents … are a clear reminder that risk does not discriminate. It is not isolated to highly technical, deep-water operations or high-temperature and high-pressure reservoirs, or any other type of new, frontier area,” Salerno said. “Risk is ever-present, across all operations.”

Beefing up data

Salerno said the challenge for regulators — and the oil and gas companies working offshore — is to constantly identify, quantify and assess risks.

Salerno used the speech to signal his interest in beefing up the way the safety bureau collects and analyzes data about offshore incidents. The offshore safety agency and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics are developing a system for tracking near-miss incidents that could be a harbinger of bigger problems. The goal of the anonymous program will be to help identify leading and lagging indicators of problems offshore.

Beyond that new initiative, Salerno said the safety bureau is working with a Department of Energy national laboratory on improved statistical analysis and risk modeling to make sure that regulatory work is focused on higher-risk activities.

More vigilance

But he acknowledged the difficulty in measuring safety, which is always easier to identify when it is absent.

“When an accident occurs, it is easy to point to that and say they were not safe, and you can peel back the contributing factors and identify things that should have been visible before,” he said. “That is why we must proactively identify, quantify and mitigate risk based on new, relevant data streams.”

Salerno, a former Coast Guard vice admiral who served as incident commander during hurricanes, oil spills and maritime accidents, said the industry has to step up its own vigilance. Regulations are only “the basic ground rules, the minimum standard,” and inspectors can’t be on board every rig every minute work is under way, he said.

Salerno offered a glimpse into his vision of oversight, noting that the absence of accidents alone isn’t a measure of safety — and that companies need to broadly tackle risks. As an example, he cited Shell’s headline-grabbing bid to drill two wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas north of Alaska last year. The wells themselves were half-drilled as planned and “were accomplished safely,” Salerno said, but “a series of mishaps and near-mishaps made it clear that companies need to address risks across all phases of their operations, including those that are primarily conducted by contractors.”