The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) plans to hire an additional 200 people to handle the agency's increasing workload due to increased regulations in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, BSEE Director James Watson told attendees at the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) in Houston in Tuesday.
Over the past two years, the agency has hired 28 engineers and 46 inspectors, Watson said. The additional 200 workers would focus on permitting and spill response plan reviews, inspection of offshore facilities and ensuring environmental compliance.
In the past, hiring workers for regulatory positions was difficult to due to the competitive salaries offered by the oil and gas industry. To compensate, BSEE has been authorized to hire workers at salary levels up to 25 percent higher above the federal salary schedule for positions in critical fields such as petroleum engineers, geologists and geophysicists.
To cope with the challenges of hiring a large number of people so quickly, the new National Offshore Training and Learning Center will ramp up. However, the new workers will not automatically translate into more inspections and permit reviews, as it will take one to two years to train workers. Watson noted that new workers would not be allowed to approve permits until they were fully trained.
This year, the agency will focus on completing the Final Drilling Safety Rule; completing the SEMS 2 rule, which further enhances the existing Workplace Safety Rule; preparing a proposed rule to enhance the requirements for blowout preventers (BOPs); and preparing a proposed rule on Production Safety Systems and Lifecycle Analysis.
BSEE is completing revisions to the Drilling Safety Rule based on comments received. The Workplace Safety Rule went into full effect in November 2011, requiring companies to have an be implementing a SEMS program. In September 2011, the SEMS 2 rule was published that included refinements and an expansion of the SEMS program, including provisions for stop work authority and reporting unsafe working conditions.
On May 22, an all-day public forum will be held to discuss BOPs and how the safety and reliabililty of BOPs can be improved. Details about the forum's time and location will be announced in the next few days.
The update to oil and gas production safety systems will be the first major revisions made since 1988, Watson said. "Since that time, production has moved into deeper and deeper water, and regulations have simply not kept pace with technological advances," Watson said.
The rulemaking will address recommendations resulting from BSEE's investigation of BP's Atlantis platform, and proposes an expanded use of lifecycle analysis of critical equipment to increase equipment reliability.
BSEE also will soon issue a Notice to Lessees clarifying the agency's expectations for Oil Spill Response Plans. Watson said BSEE is asking the industry to move beyond just buying more of the same equipment that has been available for decades, and to develop innovative technologies that increase the effectiveness of oil spill response equipment and to come up with new capabilities to improve recovery operations.
BSEE Goal's Not Issuing Certain Number of Permits
Watson noted that much attention has been focused on the number of permits that have been issued since the Deepwater Horizon incident since April 2010, while others have focused on the number of Incidents of Noncompliance (INC) that have also been issued.
"I do not believe the goal of BSEE should be to approve a certain number of permits or issue a certain number of INCS," Watson noted. "Rather, we must use our full suite of authorities and resources, employing both prescriptive and performance based standards to instill safe practices at all levels, at all times."
While BSEE's predecessor organization did not exercise its authority to hold contractors accountable for their action, BSEE would enforce regulations in every case and would issue INCs or civil penalties as appropriate. "We will do this in a measured and consistent way, and with consideration to all the factors contributing to the violation, but we will not turn away from exercising full authority," Watson said.
Efforts to ensure the highest safety standards possible depend on the ability of the oil and gas industry to internalize a robust safety culture, Watson said, and to understand "that safety does not simply mean doing things right when the BSEE inspector is on board. It means operating safely at all levels, at all times."
"Because it's not just about fighting the last war," Watson said. "It's about identifying where the next problem might arise, and taking steps to make sure it never does – or that if something does happen, it can be handled quickly, effectively, and without loss of life."
Watson is pleased to see rigs returning to the U.S. Gulf, a sign of the industry's confidence in doing business in the region. "It is in our nation's interest that we have a robust oil and gas industry offshore for the economic benefits and supply security," Watson said.
The oil and gas industry has responded in a big way to the most aggressive regulatory reforms in U.S. history, including the development of two oil spill containment systems, as well as the Center for Offshore Safety and the Joint Industry Task Forces.
Watson said he was pleased with the oil and gas industry's renewed focus on safety, but said that more work remains in improving safety regulations in an ever changing industry. "No amount of oil and gas is worth the loss of life."
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