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Include Outside Expertise for Best Offshore Technology, Says Report

The best available and safest technologies (BAST) for offshore oil and natural gas producers may not lie within the walls of the U.S. Department of Interior (DOI) but from independent expertise, according to a report prepared for federal officials.

The report precedes a plan by DOI to form an independent institute to enhance safety and ensure responsible offshore operations as a "suitable vehicle" to evaluate and develop technologies to meet a Congressional mandate.

In the aftermath of the 2010 Macondo well blowout and Deepwater Horizon explosion in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, DOI sought to improve its approach to implement the mandate for BAST. The agency's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) asked the National Academy of Engineering and the National Research Council to provide a range of options and they were asked to review options and issues that BSEE already was considering.

However, outside experts were not asked to recommend a specific BAST implementation approach nor to carry out an in-depth evaluation of BSEE's use of BAST. The experts formed a committee principally focused on developing options regarding BSEE's plans for an independent Ocean Energy Safety Institute (OESI), which would provide technical support for BAST implementation.

After studying all of BSEE's proposals, the experts came to the conclusion that the projects wouldn't have enough money to fund what regulators wanted to do nor would they be able to draw the most talented people to carry out delivery. BSEE indicated in its proposal announcement that up to $5 million would be made available over five years to launch OESI.

"The committee believes that this funding level is not adequate for producing meaningful BAST results other than planning and that it could limit the ability to attract and retain key personnel...It will need a funding commitment that is consistently in the range of several million dollars per year to attract and grow the skills and competencies required, to monitor and keep pace with industry technology developments, and to shape and support as necessary the research programs to assess and mature beneficial technologies."

Since the Macondo explosion, which killed 11 men and devastated the Gulf Coast region for months, offshore equipment has been reconfigured and operators have overhauled their safety practices and personnel training. The permitting backlog that grew during a six-month moratorium has since dropped and drilling has returned to pre-Macondo levels, according to some of the biggest operators.

"Offshore oil and gas exploration, drilling, and production pose many complex technical challenges, especially in very deep water or in harsh environments such as the Arctic," said the report. "The pace of technology development to meet these challenges is rapid and constant because industry spends billions of dollars every year on drilling, development and production activities.  However, despite BSEE's aggressive hiring and training campaign over the past two years, the agency cannot be expected to match industry's technical expertise because federal compensation limits make it difficult to attract and retain top experts."

BSEE's "evaluation of candidate technologies to meet the 'best available and safest' mandate should examine the overall complexity of the entire system in which the technologies will be used, as well as interactions of components, human operators, and the geologic environment," the authors said. "In addition, assessments of the economic impacts of implementing new technologies should include potential costs of disrupting drilling and production operations as new, immature technologies are introduced."

Industry competition, noted the authors, "drives much technology development, creating an inherent push of new technologies, including those that improve safety. BSEE should also consider using legislative or regulatory incentives to hasten the deployment of new safety technology.

"Systematic analyses of operations and near misses, as well as accidents, can also spur technology development...The range of such technologies should be broad, from advanced instruments to often-overlooked human factors."

DOI sponsored the study, which was prepared by the National Academies, made up of the nonprofit National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council make up the National Academies. The National Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.

ISSN © 2577-9877 | ISSN © 1532-1231

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