Q&A: Industry Leadership, Partnerships Make Offshore Safer Than Ever
John D. Siciliano
Posted April 20, 2020
Today is the 10th anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico. A decade later, offshore energy development has never been safer, largely because of industry leadership in developing new technologies and creating a proactive safety management culture. This is critically important because the offshore accounts for 15% of U.S. oil production. Innovations in infrastructure and deep-sea equipment, plus rigorous safety training, safety protocols and the management tools to ensure those protocols are effective, reflect industry’s commitment to prevent such an incident, in which lives were lost, from happening again. In the Q&A that follows, Debra Phillips, API senior vice president for Global Industry Services, talks about what has been learned and industry’s responses – including hundreds of safety standards – to maximize offshore safety.
Q: How has the offshore industry taken steps to improve the safety at offshore facilities since the incident in the Gulf 10 years ago?
Phillips: Well, the industry has been very active in the safety and environmental protection space since the Deepwater Horizon offshore incident in 2010. In fact, we see it as a new day for offshore safety.
For instance, the American Petroleum Institute has taken numerous steps to enact standards and good practices that ensure an improved safety situation in the Gulf.
Immediately after the event, API moved swiftly with four industry task forces to understand what caused the incident and to recommend preventative safety measures. That effort resulted in key changes to our safety standards to address four areas, including offshore operations, offshore equipment, well control and containment, and spill response.
One of the more significant standards to come out of that effort included Recommended Practice (RP) 96, addressing issues related to the design of deepwater wells ... which is one of the key areas that the task forces sought to address.
One other standard, RP 97, also a part of those early actions, addressed the relationship between offshore operators and their contractors to ensure responsibilities are communicated effectively among different groups to ensure safe operations.
In April 2014, the co-chairs of the national spill commission formed after Macondo praised these efforts, saying that “offshore drilling is safer than it was four years ago.” But our work has continued from there over the past six years, especially as more innovative technologies have developed and best practices and regulations have evolved and modernized. In total, 250 offshore safety standards have been created or revised by API since the 2010 incident, with 100 of those being included in federal regulations overseeing the offshore industry (click image to enlarge).
Q: How has coordination grown between industry and the federal government over the last decade to improve safety?
Phillips: After the Deepwater Horizon incident, industry and government made a series of significant improvements to establish robust preventative and intervention practices, including improving our capabilities to rapidly respond to offshore incidents.
These improvements coincided with a substantial reorganization of the Department of Interior’s offshore management agency, which became two separate entities – the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM). This transformative action taken by Washington to improve oversight coincided with the industry’s own steps to create the Center for Offshore Safety (COS), a non-profit organization that works to promote systems that drive offshore safety progress, analyze offshore safety data to identify trends and opportunities for improvement, and facilitate offshore organizations sharing of good practices and learning that advances safety and environmental protection for all. The COS also plays a critical role working with the federal government in auditing facilities for compliance with government rules.
Both the creation of BSEE and BOEM, in addition to the COS, as well as multiple new standards and updates to existing standards marked a veritable sea change in how the industry operates to this day.
Industry welcomes effective regulations, and we must always work to advance it. This includes BSEE regulations that now have extensive requirements for well design and integrity, and blowout preventer and control systems.
Extensive reviews over the past decade show that instead of locking in outdated or flawed regulatory provisions that may decrease safety, it is critical that revisions are made to enhance oversight to fit actual operating conditions and modernize the regulatory framework.
These changes have put the industry on track to continuously improve safety and environmental protection in the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS), with the goal of making our fleet of offshore facilities sustainable for the generations to come.
Q: How do you see the industry continuing to make progress on safety in the years to come?
Phillips: Safety culture has been a key area of emphasis for our industry over the past decade and through the new standards in place along with the Center for Offshore Safety, we see that progress continuing into the new decade and beyond through an emphasis on “human factors” to focus on the dynamics of people. We are focused on accounting for the decisions people need to make every day and that is of vital importance when talking about safety culture. API and the industry have spent a lot of time on this to enhance the underlying culture of safety within the industry.
Third-party oversight of safety systems and equipment design at offshore facilities supports the safety culture and has been instilled throughout API industry standards, best practices and federal regulations. This process has provided credibility through independent expert views and will continue to be relied upon in developing safety standards for offshore operations.
Recently, we issued an updated version of our foundational offshore safety standard, called RP 75. The standard informs our efforts to address offshore safety and environmental mitigation in both the United States and globally. It also forms the basis for the programs and operations of the COS. This recent update to RP 75 is a prime example of how API and the industry are keeping its operational safety practices up-to-date with the latest information.
I would also point out that the development of these standards is open to all parties, including federal agencies, academia, and other stakeholders. It is an open and collaborative process that relies on consensus, balance and transparency, in line with the requirements of the American National Standards Institute (ANSI). We view the act of setting and adopting industry standards that go beyond regulatory requirements as a proactive demonstration of industry leadership in safety, environmental protection and sustainability. When government agencies then incorporate API standards in their regulations – which often happens – we view that action as further endorsement of the scientific rigor and fundamental technical basis of our standards.
Q: How important is offshore drilling to national energy security?
Phillips: The amount of natural gas and oil that the U.S. receives from the Gulf of Mexico is substantial. Around 15% of the nation’s oil production comes from offshore, so it has not waned in the last decade. Even with the development of shale natural gas and oil during that time period, the industry has remained bullish on the need for offshore development, while prioritizing safety and environmental sustainability in its plans.
New offshore production platforms, representing some of the largest and most technologically sophisticated in the world, have gone into operation in recent years. And that is something that isn’t just happening in the U.S., but around the world. Our aim is to ensure that these new developments are operated responsibly when it comes safety and the environment.
About The Author
John Siciliano is a writer for API Global Industry Services’ Marketing and Communications Department. He joined API after 14 years as an energy and environment reporter and editor. Most recently, he was senior energy and environment writer for the Washington Examiner and the Daily on Energy newsletter. He began full-time reporting in Washington in 2001 as a foreign affairs correspondent, also covering national security and defense. His coverage of the Mideast and Saudi Arabia led him to become a full-time energy reporter. He earned a bachelors degree in psychology from Ohio Northern University, and he also holds a Masters of Science degree in education from the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
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