Regulator sees no harm in offshore safety audits

04 30, 2013 by Houston Chronicle

Mandatory audits of offshore safety plans will help the oil industry and government identify hazards, but aren't intended to result in citations or fines, the government's top offshore regulator said in Houston Monday.

"There has been a lot of misperception that we are going to use these audits like we do an inspection," said James Watson, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

"That's not true at all. We want you to show that you are finding your incidents, so that we don't have to. The goal is that BSEE will never find these things - that you will find them yourselves," Watson added.

He spoke at the first forum of the Offshore Safety Center, a Houston-based industry group established after the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

In the aftermath of that disaster, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement required offshore operators to establish what the agency calls Safety and Environment Management Systems.

Beginning Nov. 15, the companies must submit the plans to internal auditors to ensure they comply with requirements, and then send them to regulators.

In June 2015, the safety systems will require independent audits.

Not about fines

The audits are intended to help the industry identify safety problems and best practices for solving them, Watson said.

Some in the industry have said they fear the regulator will turn the companies' own audits against them by issuing fines for non-compliance that the audits may uncover.

Watson said that fear is unfounded.

"We are not measuring our success by the number of civil fines," Watson said. "I will measure my success by how well we prevent accidents and spills and how well we ensure safety at all times."

The agency has set general goals rather than detailed requirements for the Safety and Environment Management Systems, so companies focus on results rather than approaching the safety systems and audits as a regulatory exercise.

But while the agency has received plans from about a quarter of the operators required to submit them, some companies have provided scant information about the results of the audit, Watson said.

Time for sharing

"I am concerned at getting an audit report that only says, 'The audit met all requirements - it was OK,' " Watson said, explaining that one of the goals of the audits is to help the industry identify and develop better safety practices.

"Maybe this is difficult to swallow, but there is nothing that is going to hurt you here. I know you had good employees produce an audit report - what is so hard about sharing it? It is not going to be used against you; it is going to be used for you."