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US Offshore Safety Grows Up In a New Frontier

Jim Watson,
Director, Bureau of Safety and Environmental
Enforcement, U.S. Department of the Interior

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) was established in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 as part of a series of fundamental changes made by the Barack Obama administration to reform the government’s oversight of offshore energy exploration and development. As we mark the end of our first year, BSEE continues to work diligently toward its most important goal: to promote safety—at all levels and at all times— across the offshore oil and natural gas industry.

Over the course of the past year, BSEE has completed a number of major initiatives, including issuing the Final Drilling Safety Rule, which finalized the important safety reforms put in place after Deepwater Horizon, and setting an aggressive regulatory schedule to enhance the reliability of blowout preventers, more effectively manage production safety systems and build upon newly instituted performance-based standards. The agency also updated oil spill response planning guidance, incorporating lessons learned from Deepwater Horizon, and directed the first-ever full-scale deployment and pressurization test for a deepwater capping stack: from dockside to a target more than 200 miles offshore in 7,000 feet of water. Marine Well Containment Co. (Houston, Texas) participated in the test.

Regulatory reform alone, however, is not sufficient to the task of institutionalizing a culture of safety and environmental responsibility across the offshore industry. BSEE must continue to build a sustainable oversight program that adapts to, learns from and, most importantly, leads the industry we regulate.

To do this, the agency is actively working toward two strategic goals. The first is to regulate, enforce and respond to Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) development using the full range of authorities, policies and tools at our disposal to compel safety, emergency preparedness and environmental responsibility, and appropriate development and conservation of our nation’s offshore oil and natural gas resources. The second goal is to build and sustain the organizational, technical and intellectual capacity within and across BSEE’s key functions—capacity that keeps pace with the OCS industry’s technological improvements, innovates in regulation and enforcement, and reduces risk through systemic assessment and regulatory and enforcement actions.

BSEE has also worked hard this past year to regulate offshore exploration in the Arctic for the first time in decades. An enormous responsibility and trust has been placed with the agency when it comes to the waters offshore Alaska. As part of the Obama administration’s strategy to expand safe and responsible domestic energy production, BSEE announced late this past summer that Royal Dutch Shell plc (The Hague, Netherlands) would be allowed to move forward with certain limited drilling operations in preparation for potential future development activities. Shell finished the Arctic open season having drilled the top portions of two wells to prepare for oil exploration drilling next season.

The bar has been set high for exploration activities in the Arctic. Throughout this past drilling season, BSEE personnel were on board Shell’s drilling rigs around the clock to ensure that Shell met our rigorous safety, environmental protection and emergency response standards. With the conclusion of this year’s drilling season, we look toward future activities and will continue to work closely with agencies across the federal government and the state of Alaska to ensure that operators continue to meet our heightened standards in the Arctic.

As offshore oil and gas exploration, development and production activities continue to increase, it is imperative that we not lose the momentum we have worked hard to develop, or fall victim to the belief that we have completed all the necessary steps to reduce the risks of offshore energy development. Accomplishing our strategic goals, while ensuring that new exploration activities are handled appropriately, will enable the agency to continue to lead the offshore industry, to spur the development of enhanced technologies, to promote a culture of safety and environmental responsibility, and to allow the country to develop its offshore resources without a repeat of the tragic events of nearly three years ago.

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