OFFSHORE DRILLING:

MMS proposes rule to reduce spills, accidents

The Interior Department is proposing a new rule that would require companies drilling offshore to develop programs to reduce spills and accidents by focusing on human behavior in addition to equipment regulation.

Under a proposal due for publication in the Federal Register tomorrow, companies would have to implement a "safety and environmental management system," or SEMS, for oil and gas activities on the outer continental shelf. The Minerals Management Service will accept public comment on the proposed rule for 90 days.

MMS found that equipment failure is rarely the primary cause of accidents or oil spills, which instead can usually be traced to human error or organizational failures. For that reason, companies must ensure that safe and environmentally sound operating practices are followed, the proposed rule says. MMS regulations historically have focused on proper equipment operation, while more progress can be made by concentrating on human behavior, it added.

"The MMS believes that if OCS oil and gas operations are better planned and organized, then the likelihood of injury to workers and the risk of environmental pollution will be further reduced," the proposed rule says.

Many companies already have similar programs. In 2006, MMS sought comments on how to improve its regulatory approach to such programs. Options included keeping them voluntary, implementing a partial requirement, or requiring a comprehensive approach, including the 12 elements listed in the American Petroleum Institute's recommended practices. The agency chose a partial approach that would cover four elements that have not been part of MMS regulations previously: hazards analysis, management of change, operating procedures and mechanical integrity.

"The MMS analyzed accident panel investigation reports, incident reports, and incidents of noncompliance and determined that the root cause of most safety and environmental accidents and incidents is one or more of these four elements," the proposed rule states.

The proposed rule would require lessees and operators to have their SEMS programs audited at least once every three years by either an independent third party or by qualified personnel designated within the company. MMS could evaluate the third parties, meet with lessees and operators to periodically review the results of SEMS program audits, and conduct announced or unannounced evaluations with MMS personnel or third parties.

Each program would be tailored to the scale and complexity of the company's operation and structured to include accountability for contractors and subcontractors, the rule says. It would describe management commitment to safety and the environment, as well as policies and procedures to assure safety and environmental protection while conducting OCS operations.

"As company management and worker attitudes play a critical role in determining the safety of operations and environmental protection, a SEMS program would play a major role in focusing the attention of top management on safety and the marine and coastal environments," the rule says.

Click here to read the proposed rule.

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