Feds confront industry skepticism on new safety hotline

WASHINGTON — Federal regulators are pleading with the oil industry to ‘fess up when they dodge big accidents on offshore production platforms, rigs and drillships.

The pitch — set to be delivered in meetings with industry leaders later this month — comes nearly eight months after the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement first pledged to create a system for tracking near-miss incidents that could be a harbinger of bigger safety problems in offshore oil and gas development.

Bureau officials say the confidential program, being developed with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, is critical to learning more about close calls offshore and averting future accidents. But because it’s a voluntary program, industry buy-in is essential to making it work.

“The voluntary, confidential near-miss reporting system has the potential to help prevent catastrophic incidents that endanger lives and the environment,” said safety bureau Director Brian Salerno in a statement. “However, the tool is only as good as the information provided.”

Number crunching: Offshore safety chief delves into data

The safety bureau has scheduled two workshops — April 22 in Los Angeles and April 24 in Houston — to outline the program and get ideas for what kind of data should be harvested.

“We will need to gather input from the offshore industry on how to design a system that will yield maximum value for overall safety improvements,” Salerno said.

Industry concerns

The meetings also will give the safety bureau a shot at assuaging skeptical oil and gas companies that any reports will be kept under wraps. Even if individual reports are anonymous, some industry representatives worry about how the information will be used — and whether it could later come back to haunt some firms.

Similar fears surfaced when the air industry began collecting near-miss data from pilots, traffic controllers and other aviation workers more than three decades ago.

Federal railroad regulators also have encountered similar resistance with their own confidential close call reporting program launched in 2011. Only one of the nation’s 26 commuter railroads is fully participating in that voluntary initiative.

The bureau is taking pains to emphasize the undercover nature of its program. The agency has even put “confidential” in the program’s formal name.

The agency is effectively farming out the data-collection and analysis to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The work will be walled off from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. And the resulting data turned over to the safety bureau will be aggregated, without details that could identify individual companies or callers.

“BSEE will not have access to identifying information and will not use these reports for enforcement action,” Program Analyst Andre King said.

Targeting BP

Although the program is voluntary, one company is getting compelled to cooperate. As noted by Platts, BP’s recent agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to lift a government contract suspension tied to the 2010 Gulf oil spill includes a requirement that the oil giant begin tracking indicators of safety problems.

BP has three months to begin collecting the data, including injury rates and instances where primary containment at a well is breached. Under the deal with EPA, BP has to report the data to its board and the safety bureau.

The 2010 oil spill sparked calls for the near miss reporting system; investigators who probed the Deepwater Horizon disaster said offshore drillers’ focus on individual worker injuries can blind them to warning signs of more fundamental process safety problems.

The Center for Offshore Safety, created by the American Petroleum Institute after the 2010 spill, also aims to analyze incident data from its members.

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