Gulf Spill Report: Feds Take Some Blame

Tuesday, October 4, 2011 @ 04:10 PM gHale

Yes, BP shares the lion’s share of blame in the Gulf of Mexico disaster last year, but an ongoing federal investigation into the oil rig explosion and spill also shows a paucity of U.S. regulations was a significant factor in the events leading up to the catastrophe.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) is conducting an extensive examination at the request of Congress of the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon accident, which killed 11 workers. Its probe, which will likely take another year to complete, will analyze all factors that may have contributed to the accident.

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CSB has already found U.S. regulations are not at the same level as those of other countries where offshore drilling occurs.

In particular, CSB is raising questions about why the United States does not adopt the “safety case” hazard system used internationally.

“Nearly every regime where there is significant oil exploration has adopted the safety case,” said Don Holmstrom, a CSB investigator, in a Greenwire report.

The safety case requires oil companies to submit a set of documents outlining the potential hazards posed by their rigs. Those documents must include an analysis of the complexity of various risks, the safety measures the company has put in place to address them and what protocols are in place in case an accident occurs.

The safety case relies on setting objectives, meaning oil companies must constantly re-evaluate their safety programs and improve them if new information becomes available. The U.S. regulatory system, he added, is set up so “people only do what is required at minimum,” said Ian Whewell, a retired director of the United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive’s Offshore Division.

Whewell summed up the difference with a basic example. If a warning sign on a rig needs painting for safety reasons, U.S. regulators would tell oil companies what color to paint it. In a safety case system, regulators would say it has to be painted but leave it up to industry to decide what color to paint it and prove why.

“It is far more challenging to the industry to try to comply with a goal-setting regime with a requirement to demonstrate in a document that they are complying with the law,” Whewell said. “The goal-setting regime gives you a push toward continuous improvement.”

CSB held a hearing late last year on this topic with regulators from the United Kingdom, Norway and Australia. The general consensus, CSB officials said, was the safety case is far more challenging and, consequently, more effective than the U.S. system leading up to the Deepwater Horizon spill.

That conclusion got a further boost by BP PLC’s internal probe from September 2010, investigators said. BP recommended oil companies conduct a hazard assessment they should submit to federal regulators, noting such a document was not a requirement by the Department of the Interior’s then-Minerals Management Service.

“A hazard analysis is a very basic component of safety management,” said Dan Tillema, the lead CSB investigator. “Lack of a hazard analysis reveals just how far behind the offshore programs are with respect to process safety management.”

The CSB investigation is not the first to look at the safety case. A presidential spill commission report released in January also recommended implementing such a regime.

“The Department of the Interior should develop a proactive, risk-based performance approach specific to individual facilities, operations and environments, similar to the ‘safety case,'” the report said.

And Interior’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has taken steps to improve safety on oil rigs that are reminiscent of the safety case.

Bureau Director Michael Bromwich said in a speech the Deepwater Horizon spill highlighted regulatory problems, including “the adequacy of the agency’s regulations, especially as they related to offshore safety and environmental protection.”

Bromwich pointed to new rules the Bureau has since enacted. The first was a “drilling safety” rule, which set in place “tough new standards” for well design, casing and cementing. It also established regulations for well control procedures and equipment, including blowout preventers.

The Bureau has also implemented a “workplace safety” rule requiring drillers to develop a “comprehensive safety and environmental management program.” Those protocols must identify potential hazards and risk-reducing strategies.

The agency also has adopted the American Petroleum Institute’s “recommended practice 75,” which the industry calls the first comprehensive safety and environmental management standard of its kind in the world.

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