The Gulf of Mexico (GOM) will see more natural gas and oil development in the years ahead, with deeper wells at higher pressures and temperatures, which means more oversight to ensure operations are safe, a top regulator with the Department of Interior said Tuesday.
Brian Salerno, who directs the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), talked with reporters at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston where he unveiled the first annual report. The analysis of 2014 data provides offshore activity and trends for the three regional offices, the GOM in New Orleans, which is the largest and busiest, as well as the Alaska region in Anchorage and the Pacific headquarters in Camarillo, CA.
"It is my belief that we can never relax our focus on safety," Salerno told the audience. "The trends we see in the first BSEE annual report show that progress is being made to improve safety and reduce risk offshore, but there is still more work to be done and further improvements to be made."
One part of managing risks, he said, "is monitoring the trends we are seeing offshore and gauging the effectiveness of the approach." Many of the most serious offshore incidents, including facilities, have been declining. However, "the work is far from done."
As an example, BSEE noted an increase in the loss of well control events in 2014. "That's troubling, given the potential for such incidents to have grave consequences."
Overall, the steady decline in incidents since BSEE was created in 2011 is encouraging, Salerno said. The bureau was created with its twin Bureau of Ocean Energy Management to replace the Minerals Management Service.
The trend in lower offshore incidents, however, "is countered by increases in fires and explosions per installation, major spills, releases of gas and hydrogen sulfide, and lifting incidents...These trends indicate that although there has been progress in making the OCS [outer continental shelf] safer and protecting the environment, there is still progress to be made."
For instance, one proposed rule now being drafted is for cranes to reduce lifting incidents, because those particular types of events are on the increase -- a consequence of bigger and deeper offshore installations.
In the GOM specifically, activity in 2014 remained robust, even with the turbulent oil and gas markets, said Salerno. Deepwater floating drilling rig activity increased to 52, up 12 from 2013. On average 33 drillships and 19 semisubmersibles were working in the GOM during 2014, compared with 19 drillships and 21 semisubmersibles a year earlier.
The number of deepwater floating production facilities in the GOM rose with the addition of two production spars and two semisubmersible facilities. The new facilities, with associated pipeline infrastructure, led to increased inspection and oversight, according to BSEE.
GOM regional inspectors last year dealt with one natural gas blowout and an explosion, which killed one person. Several incidents resulting in "environmental harm and injuries" also were investigated. Most of the "root causes" for the offshore incidents were linked to "human performance difficulties and the interface between people and engineered systems."
"This is a subject that both the bureau and industry must keep in mind moving forward, if risk and incidents are to be reduced on the OCS," said Salerno. "Developing a meaningful safety culture that permeates all actions offshore, and goes well above and beyond regulatory compliance is necessary to reduce risk."
This year, six new drillships are expected to start work in the GOM, he said.
BSEE Tuesday also launched SafeOCS, a voluntary, confidential OCS reporting system to collect and analyze near-miss incidents. Regulators are trying to identify "all available methods" to learn more about what causes serious offshore incidents, Salerno explained. The official website is to be launched in June.
The "entire offshore community" is being encouraged to participate SafeOCS "to help improve the overall safety posture of the industry," Salerno said. "Shared awareness of safety trends will better equip everyone to focus on the right things and thereby drive down the risk of serious incidents."
The federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics would collect and analyze the near-miss reports submitted by individual companies and employees. Aggregated data would be shared on the BTS website and used to identify trends.