WASHINGTON — The nation’s newest offshore drilling regulator thinks crunching numbers now could avoid crushing disasters later.
Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, wants the agency to step up the way it collects information from coastal oil and gas facilities and then put that data to use zeroing in on problems, managing risk and thwarting accidents.
“We need to be a data-driven organization,” Salerno said. “We cannot be satisfied with just conducting inspections and assuming they are driving risk down.”
Salerno outlined his mission to change the way the agency uses information in an interview with FuelFix, one of his first since taking over the post more than two months ago. The former Coast Guard vice admiral says using information from site visits, accidents and near misses offshore to target inspections and focus regulation is one of his highest priorities, along with recruiting top-notch talent, fostering a safety culture in the offshore drilling industry and making his agency more transparent.
Some changes are already underway. In August, just as he arrived, Salerno’s agency, part of the Interior Department, arranged with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to develop a new confidential system for offshore workers to report near misses — the almost-accidents that can be harbingers of bigger problems.
Analyzing that information could help identify patterns, highlight warning signs and flag common equipment failures for both regulators and the industry.
But even existing information — including reports from inspections of drilling rigs, production platforms and other facilities — can be put to better use, Salerno said.
“Over time, you collect enough data, you see trends, and you see gaps. That is what will allow us to continuously improve our methodologies,” Salerno said. “I would like to see us analyze trends, identify gaps and then figure out the best ways to fill those gaps.”
Others have made similar recommendations.
After the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the National Academy of Engineering said if near-miss information were collected and shared for offshore drilling as it is for aviation, it could “play an important role in avoiding accidents.”
The Chemical Safety Board said the industry and regulators should pay closer attention to near-misses and how well offshore facilities are maintained.
Andrew Hopkins, a sociology professor at the Australian National University, says the U.S. should require companies to tell the government about all incidents that lead to escaping oil or natural gas and report how long it takes them to respond to “kicks,” the pressure surges in wells that can lead to blowouts.
Ted Tupper, a former government data miner at the Minerals Management Service, the predecessor agency to Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said the agency already has a wealth of information to tap.
“If we’re going to have a truly optimal safety system, part of that process is a sophisticated analysis of the data,” he told a government panel in January. “The approach taken by the Department of Interior is sorely lacking in this area.”
Violations documented during offshore inspections are “early warning signs that this company, this rig, or this kind of equipment is going to fail in the future,” Tupper said. “They have years and years of this data. They need to start using the data they have and start connecting the dots.”
The right focus
Salerno sees a role for more scientific modeling in-house as a way for the agency to verify that it’s focusing on the right things and to assess progress in improving offshore safety.
“We really have to focus on measuring outcomes and seeing if we have an effect and learning from the incidents that do occur,” Salerno said. “Should we adjust our inspection procedures? Are we focused on the right things and the right areas?”
Better data analysis can poke holes in long-held assumptions — like the conventional wisdom that oil and gas development on the shallow outer continental shelf is somehow safer than exploratory drilling into unknown, high-pressure reservoirs hundreds of miles from the coastline.
Risks ever present
Recent accidents in the Gulf of Mexico — including the fatal fall of a welder from an offshore platform in October and a blast that killed three workers on Black Elk Energy’s West Delta 32 production platform last year — highlight the inherent risks across all offshore energy development.
“We collectively as an industry and as a regulatory agency, assume risk is associated with certain kinds of activities, such as deep-water drilling, high temperature, high pressure and the Arctic,” Salerno said. “There are risks there, and they do have to be managed, but when we look at where the accidents have been over the past year, they haven’t really been concentrated in those areas.”
Small agency, big job
Salerno recognizes his bureau’s challenge is formidable.
“We’re a very small agency regulating some of the largest corporations in the world,” he said.
Under a new requirement imposed in 2010 and expanded earlier this year, offshore oil and gas operators must establish broad “safety and environmental management systems” designed to help them identify and combat risk and then subject those initiatives to outside audits.
Salerno said he wants to make sure that those safety plans don’t become “shelf ware,” prepared then ignored.
Salerno said he is stressing his safety message in meetings with industry— along with his promise that the agency will strive to be predictable in regulating the sector.
“We can’t be on every platform, every rig and every facility everyday,” Salerno said. “So the way to really improve safety is to work with industry and build up that safety culture that we can then verify in the course of our normal inspections.”
‘Peaks and valleys’
Salerno said he sees uneven commitment to safety across the industry, and aims to “level the peaks and valleys.”
“I want to encourage those who are doing the right thing,” he said, “and pay very close attention to those who really need that extra encouragement.”
New boss at BSEE
Brian Salerno took over Aug. 26 as head of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, succeeding James Watson.
Duties: Oversight and enforcement of regulations in offshore operations on the outer continental shelf.
Career: 36 years in the Coast Guard, retiring as vice admiral June 5, 2012; federal on-scene coordinator for oil and hazardous materials; marine safety adviser to the Panama Canal Authority; member of National Academy of Sciences Ocean Studies Board examining how to tackle oil spills in Arctic waters.
Education: Coast Guard Officer Candidate School; master’s in strategic studies, U.S. Army War College; master’s in management, Johns Hopkins University.