Debate on protecting oil rig workers takes a new turn -- but likely to last a long time

One year after the rig blast that spewed nearly 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico, offshore drilling regulators are moving forward with risk-management standards that had languished for more than 15 years before the disaster, and the oil industry is launching a deepwater safety center.

But even as the Obama administration prepares to release a second worker safety rule this summer, some experts warn that without regulatory vigilance, the new strategies could hand oil companies too much power to police their own day-to-day operations. That dialogue -- among academics, advocates, business and labor -- over how to limit the human errors that can cause fatal on- and offshore oil production accidents is just beginning to play out on the Gulf gusher's first anniversary.

At the heart of the issue is a model known as "safety case," versions of which were adopted in the United Kingdom, Australia and Norway after offshore accidents in their waters. Loosely defined, the safety case system requires rig operators to conduct in-depth risk assessments that pinpoint potential hazards and map out responses to adverse outcomes ahead of time and in detail.

The presidential commission that examined the Gulf calamity urged the United States to follow its transatlantic neighbors in requiring a safety case. Commission co-Chairman William Reilly, a former U.S. EPA administrator, is a particularly vocal proponent of such a "risk-based performance" standard for the precarious task of extracting hydrocarbons from the deep sea.

A safety case, Reilly told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in January, "is something that militates against a 'check the box' mentality with respect to regulation."

"It says, present to the regulator an analysis of a particular problem ... with its pressures and its challenges, whatever they may be," Reilly added. "And explain how you, the company that's going to be the operator responsible for developing it, how you propose to address those risks."

Yet in the wrong hands, worker-safety advocates warn that safety cases can amount to little more than a detailed justification for corner-cutting.


"It's like any safety system: It can work if it's done properly," United Steelworkers health director Mike Wright said in an interview this week. "But our fear is that, without strong government oversight, there's really no check on a company deciding to implement a safety case, or any other kind of approach, as a paper exercise."

Wright estimated that his union has members in about half of U.S. oil refineries, where process-safety models similar to safety cases are often used. Nonetheless, he cited one refinery company where process safety rules simply "forced them [to] jump through a set of hoops to justify a dangerous decision they were going to make."

Rena Steinzor, president of the pro-regulation Center for Progressive Reform, takes a harder line against the safety case. In a January op-ed, she dismissed the concept as an "essentially self-regulatory" solution pitched by "industry and its consultants."

"We can do better, if Congress gives the regulators adequate funding, moves them to an agency like the EPA or [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration] whose mission is to crack down on bad actors, and gives them the authority they need to make the oil industry internalize the American people's expectation that it operate safely," Steinzor wrote.

OSHA's jurisdiction over worker safety ends around the shoreline, however, leaving offshore standards to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) and the Coast Guard. Despite reluctance from some oil companies, BOEMRE pressed forward last fall on a rule known as SEMS, or Safety and Environmental Management Systems, that makes mandatory a dozen previously recommended American Petroleum Institute (API) process-safety practices (Greenwire, July 2, 2010).

BOEMRE chief Michael Bromwich said in a speech this week that his agency would release a second SEMS rule later this year that calls for independent audits of companies' internal safety plans. "We are determined that this rule live up to its promise by causing operators to comprehensively and responsibly identify, address and remediate the risks of offshore drilling," Bromwich added.

Indeed, API has embraced the government's adaptation of its 12-part safety process and aims to expanded its efforts at promoting best practices through its newly created Center for Offshore Safety.

"We took immediate steps to advance spill-response capabilities and to identify and learn from any potential gaps in operations or practices" as part of an "unprecedented response" to the Gulf spill, API CEO Jack Gerard said through a spokesman.

"These actions demonstrate our industry's commitment to the highest level of safety -- to protecting our workers, our oceans and our shorelines," Gerard added. "They should reassure the government it is time to return to full production in the Gulf of Mexico."

Even if the new federal SEMS guidelines fall short of a full-scale safety case in the British or Australian style, the very fact of their arrival marks a reversal of a years-long slow-walking at BOEMRE's predecessor, the Minerals Management Service.

According to the presidential oil-spill commission's report, MMS first began discussing a mandatory health and safety standard in 1991 but opted instead to collaborate with industry, with one federal official concluding "that the best the agency could do with available resources was to encourage voluntary compliance." Even the first incarnation of the now-mandatory process safety rule, floated in 2009, aimed to require just four of the 12 API-crafted steps.

Unions, industry and government

Offshore oil workers are rarely organized into unions, a fact that labor leaders such as AFL-CIO health and safety director Peg Seminario and Change to Win occupational safety chief Eric Frumin cited this week in calling for stronger employee involvement in developing on-the-job protections.

Recent interviews on PBS's "Frontline" with BP PLC pipeline workers who fought to preserve maintenance jobs along the company's troubled Prudhoe Bay pipeline system in Alaska demonstrate "how workers can make the critical difference 'on the ground' to make sure that employers -- including big, sophisticated, wealthy and otherwise capable ones -- comply with the law," Frumin said via email.

What's more, some British critics dispute the popular picture of their offshore safety system as a better alternative to the previous, more proscriptive U.S. model. In a recent commentary for his magazine, Hazards, U.K.-based union safety officer and occupational health professor Rory O'Neill cited an uptick in major injuries in the country's offshore sector and cautioned that his country may be "flirting with disaster."

"Accidents are up, and oversight is down," O'Neill wrote. "And the accident figures that are published put a healthy gloss on what in fact is a more deadly performance."

Such wariness is unlikely to deter API's nascent offshore safety center, which the industry group vows to steer via its "separately funded standards and certification arm" to avoid the appearance of overlap with its pro-drilling advocacy. That potential conflict drew scrutiny this week from Reilly, the spill commission's co-chairman, who told "Platts Energy Week" on Sunday that the safety center's "credibility and respect" in the eyes of the public would depend on its role being "distinct from those lobbying activities."

The API center is not the only new arrival in the offshore worker-safety realm since the Gulf spill. BOEMRE this week launched a new Ocean Safety Advisory Committee, composed of 14 industry, academic, public and nonprofit representatives. Among its members are the chief scientist for the presidential oil spill commission and Nancy Leveson, an aeronautics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in safety engineering.

Leveson also served on the panel formed by BP to probe its 2005 Texas City refinery disaster, a post that gave her a firsthand look at the relative limits and merits of different approaches to safely handling hazardous hydrocarbons.

"Every company in the industry has management of change procedures," Leveson said in an interview earlier this year, referring to one of API's 12 safety standards. "I've interacted with BP enough to know that they exist. None of them were followed in this [Deepwater Horizon] case."

Ultimately, the ongoing debate over how many and what type of steps must be taken to ensure safe oil production may wind on for as long as drilling continues in the Gulf. As Bromwich put it this week, the work toward balancing safety and development in extracting resources "will never be complete."

"It is a continuing, ongoing, dynamic enterprise," Bromwich said. "Those who ask the naive and simplistic question, 'Is offshore oil and gas regulation fixed yet?' or 'Is the agency fixed yet?' miss the most important lessons of Deepwater Horizon."

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