UK safety regime ‘a jewel worth defending’

In his opinion piece in last month's edition of Offshore Engineer, consultant Ian Fitzsimmons questioned whether the UK Health & Safety Executive's Offshore Division was fit for purpose in a post-Macondo world. Here, Steve Walker, head of the HSE's Offshore Division, has his say.

Incidents in major hazard industries across the world, whether nuclear, chemical industry, railways and offshore exploration & production, have the potential for causing very significant numbers of casualties, and sometimes widespread environmental damage. Though they happen infrequently, the inevitable public and political concerns raised often lead to step changes in the amount of control and protection of those industries.

In the UK, for instance, the Flixborough chemical plant explosion, the rail crash at Ladbroke Grove and the Piper Alpha disaster all led to significant changes in operational practices and legislation within the UK, often affecting other industries as deeper understanding of major hazard control became available. However, it is not just UK incidents which affect UK practices. Seveso, Chernobyl and Bhopal have strongly influenced UK process safety standards, and to this list of tragedies we now add Macondo.

It is not surprising the blowout at the Macondo well, where 11 men lost their lives and millions of barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, had such a significant effect thousands of miles away in the North Sea. As Macondo unravelled in the weeks following 22 April 2010, there was growing public concern that an oil spill from a blowout of that magnitude in the North Sea would have the potential to affect wildlife and beaches across a number of European countries.

Nearly two years on, we can now review how industry and regulators such as HSE's Offshore Division have responded. Macondo was a landmark incident because for the first time in some years the environmental hazards arising from offshore industries were propelled to the forefront of public perception in the UK. For those of us working in the offshore industry, the legacy of Piper Alpha some 24 years ago still weighs heavily on our industry, but though that tragedy claimed 167 lives there was not widespread environmental concern. Environmental considerations did not feature in Lord Cullen's recommendation of a transfer of safety regulation from the former Department of Energy to the Health & Safety Executive.

Where Macondo differs is that the public perception is of an environmental disaster and, for the majority of people, the abiding memory of the loss of the Deepwater Horizon will be one of photographs of pelicans covered in crude black oil rather than of bereaved families. More than any other instance in the offshore industry, Macondo has served to emphasise the continuum of safety integrity to environmental protection. Safety and environment are not in two separate silos – if you keep the hydrocarbons in the pipes to protect the workers, you will also provide integrity for the environment.

So how did the UK respond? On an industry-wide basis, the establishment of the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group [OSPRAG], just a month after Macondo, set the scene. This tripartite group, involving full representation from within the industry, its regulators and trade unions, was set up to review the adequacy of the UK continental shelf oil spill prevention and response arrangements, and to monitor and review the findings coming out of the investigations in Gulf of Mexico.

The work of OSPRAG is widely recognised as being the most impressive post-Macondo response of any offshore industry outside the Gulf of Mexico. Others have reported back widely in the press on its body of work so I will resist revisiting that territory, but the financing, design and construction of the OSPRAG well capping device, unveiled last September, was particularly impressive and provides a lasting legacy. In addition, the work of the various OSPRAG sub-groups continues to be taken forward by the new Wells Life Cycle Practices Forum (WLCPF) and the Oil Spillage Forum (OSF), which provide permanent vehicles for taking forward continuous improvement based on lessons from Macondo.

But what of the UK regulators? The Health & Safety Executive (HSE), a non departmental public body reporting to the Department of Works & Pensions, has an Offshore Division (OSD) which regulates offshore safety integrity via a Safety Case regime. The Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC) covers environmental protection via its licensing functions and oil spill environmental regulation. How did they respond to Macondo? Despite inevitable pressure, both HSE and DECC avoided any knee jerk reactions – remember, at this time the European Commission was calling for a moratorium on deepwater drilling throughout the North Sea, and others were going even further. We recognised the safety and environmental protection regimes in the UK had multiple layers of regulatory protection absent in the US, such as an established Safety Case regime, independent well examination and verification, a mature goal-setting regulatory regime building on the lessons learned from Piper Alpha, intrusive inspection programmes of safety critical elements and controls by specialist offshore inspectors.

Also, the culture in the North Sea is different to the Gulf of Mexico, with more emphasis on safety culture and workforce engagement – areas essential for ensuring the maintenance of good hydrocarbon control. However, we had to have a healthy feeling of vulnerability, as there are no guarantees such a blowout would never happen on the UKCS, only that such a possibility was much less likely. OSD therefore increased its assessment of well control during all drilling rig visits and DECC increased the number of its environmental inspectors and inspections of drilling rigs, there was a greater dialogue between the two regulators and an increase in joint inspection. Both HSE and DECC realised we needed to respond by continually learning from the emerging findings from the myriad of US investigation reports, and agreed we would commence a formal independent review of the UK offshore regulatory regime once clear lessons had emerged from the Gulf of Mexico.

That independent review was subsequently undertaken by Professor Maitland, supported by a panel, including other independents, and reported last December .

Goal-setting philosophy

Our current offshore safety legislation stemmed directly from Piper Alpha. Its underlying philosophy is one of goal-setting, thus giving operators and duty holders a clear objective to be legally achieved rather than a list of detailed duties. I have always felt such legislation is more demanding for the operators than the more prescriptive styles of ‘tick box' regulations which occur elsewhere. Our legislation was developed in close, but challenging, consultation with the industry and with those who work in it, and I feel that despite close scrutiny post-Macondo, it has proved itself.

The House of Commons Select Committee which looked into the implications for UK deepwater drilling following Macondo heard evidence from a wide range of witnesses and concluded that ‘the UK has high offshore regulatory standards as exemplified by the Safety Case regulations – based on flexible goal-setting principles – superior to those under which the Deepwater Horizon operated'. These sentiments were echoed in 2011 in the Australian Ministerial Summit into Offshore Safety and the corresponding International Regulators Forum (IRF) Summit in Stavanger, both of which gave resounding international support to the goal-setting safety case approach. Lastly, the most recent proposals from the European Commission have heavily borrowed from the UK experience, and seek to extend the particular UK ideas of verification across the EU. Professor Maitland's review also ‘commends in particular the UK's goal-setting safety regime and its ability to foster innovation and continuous improvement in process integrity'. Our regime is certainly a jewel worth defending.

So let's move to the second piece of the jigsaw, the willingness of the industry to accept its responsibilities and to understand the regulatory framework and deliver its responsibilities consistently and effectively. UK industry responded impressively in the aftermath of Macondo, and this must be recognised. However, in some areas there still remain significant challenges for the industry. From my perspective, there are a number of key priorities for the industry to take forward the post-Macondo agenda:

  • Embed the lessonsWords alone don't improve offshore conditions, actions do, so it is imperative the raft of guidance and standards coming out of the industry, both nationally through WLCPF/OSPRAG and internationally through OGP, API/ISO standards etc, are put into practice and embedded into company processes and procedures.

     

     

  • Better sharing of information This is a long running challenge and the industry still faces difficulty ensuring the transfer of lessons and information occurs within companies, let alone between companies and between offshore basins. The Incident Alert Database run by Step Change and the other opportunities it provides for operators to share incident experiences is beginning to thaw this issue. However, a lot more needs to be done – the shackles of lawyers still hang heavy and act as a disincentive to open and prompt sharing of lessons of vital relevance to others in the industry. I hope the work launched by OGP to provide an international database of well control incidents will cause a change in attitudes and be a major improvement – time will tell.

     

     

  • Bringing poor performers up to the standards of good performers The offshore industry could be considered to be on a knife edge - another major incident could cause irreparable economic harm to the industry and further restrict the areas in which it can work. It could also cause another avoidable tragedy. The offshore industry is a tight family, with a relatively small number of major players, and there are real benefits of putting into place mechanisms for mutual help and assistance.

     

  • Being open and transparent A major feature of the post-Macondo world has been the lack of trust of the industry by others, whether it be politicians or members of the public. There is a need for the industry to earn its 'public licence to operate', and it can't do that by being secretive or closed. The recent decision by Oil & Gas UK to publish attributable data on offshore hydrocarbon releases is a start, but the more information and explanations it can give to the world at large, the better.

     

  • Tackling the hardware challenges The offshore industry is one of the most innovative technical industries around. However, it still needs to resolve some key standards and agreement on the design of BOPs and other related kit. I do find it slightly disappointing though when overly simplistic points from some commentators confuse the blowout ¡¥stopper¡¦ qualities of a BOP with its (arguably more important) blowout ¡¥prevention¡¦ purpose, leading to arguments about the number of shear rams in a BOP stack overshadowing the ability of the stack to control incipient well control incidents at a much earlier stage.

     

  • Establishing the right Safety Culture Something that cannot be achieved solely be legislation, but by the commitment of company leadership and the effective involvement of the workforce.

     

Regulation post-Macondo

Finally, let's take a frank look at the role and performance of the UK's offshore regulators post-Macondo. In doing so we must take care not to forget that those who create risks are responsible for managing and controlling them - not the regulator. The role of the regulator is different; it is to robustly challenge the risk creators to demonstrate that they are in control of the risks, and to influence, stimulate, and - where appropriate ¡V to force the industry to improve, always while approaching its work in a targeted, proportional, consistent and transparent way. There has to be a tension between the regulator and the regulated, but it must be a creative tension to drive improvements.

So, how have we done? The first thing is that we must improve, as any organisation needs to do in the spirit of continuous improvement. For me, one of the biggest lessons has been the benefits of working more closely with our regulatory colleagues in DECC, better reflecting the seamless transition offshore from worker protection to environmental protection, from emergency response to protect lives to emergency response to safeguard the environment. The interactions and coordination between HSE and DECC have significantly increased since Macondo, culminating in a much extended Memorandum of Understanding between ourselves. However, this is not an end in itself. The Maitland Review also strongly recommended even closer working together, working at the very least towards the principles of a joint offshore Competent Authority – similar to the approach for the downstream industry in the UK, and that is also likely to be part of the eventual European offshore legislation, in whatever eventual form that takes.

Second, we recognise the need to continually develop our responses to the almost insatiable need for openness and transparency, an issue which is a challenge for all of us who work in regulatory and public bodies. We have a clear commitment to our stakeholder engagement work, via close involvement in Step Change, chairing the tripartite Oil Industry Advisory Committee (OIAC) etc, and one of the benefits of regulating such a discrete industry is that lines of communication are pretty clear. There has been significant investment via our website in making our strategies and processes transparent, reporting back on our key intervention programmes (the recent reports on Workforce Engagement and Corrosion are examples), issuing Safety Alerts and Offshore Information Sheets, and providing annual summaries of industry health and safety performance.

Thirdly, I'm mindful that OSD must remain a strong and competent regulator, capable of working on a number of fronts from enforcing to influencing. We sink or swim by the professionalism and quality of our staff, and I'm proud of the wide range of offshore specialist expertise which I can call on from within my division, and from the rest of HSE where necessary. A measure of the HSE and departmental commitment to offshore regulation is that, unlike the vast majority of the civil service, I am still able to recruit to fill these specialist vacancies

Finally, it is not only the offshore industry which operates within an international environment – the regulators do too. Macondo has brought the various national offshore regulators closer, and raised the profile of the International Regulators Forum (IRF) and the North Sea Offshore Authorities Forum (NSOAF), in both of which OSD plays a leading role. The challenges from industry at the IRF Summit last year were for offshore regulators to be more consistent across national boundaries, more involved in the international standards community, and more effective sharing of incident findings and data, all of which we will have to respond to.

In conclusion, despite very close scrutiny since Macondo, there still remains strong support for the UK system for safety and environmental regulation of the offshore industry – it has stood the test of time and is benchmarkable. Nevertheless, any industry and its regulators must be open to continuously challenging their own standards and practices, and I feel this has been demonstrated in the overall UK response to Macondo. I'm continuing to put pressure on the UK industry to carry on delivering the improvements it has committed itself to, and will ensure we as regulators are equally open and professional in embedding lessons for ourselves. OE

Steve Walker joined the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) 35 years ago after obtaining a degree in chemical engineering and working in industry. He has undertaken a wide number of operational and policy roles covering industries such as major hazard chemical plants, the railway industry and offshore, and became head of the HSE's Offshore Division (OSD) in 2009. OSD is responsible for assessing and regulating the integrity and safety of some 300 offshore oil & gas installations on the UKCS.

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