Feds seek data on near-accidents at offshore oil facilities

Jennifer A. Dlouhy | Houston ChronicleThe New York Times

WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators are pleading with the oil industry to turn over information on close calls and dodged accidents at offshore production platforms, rigs and drill ships.

The pitch -- set to be delivered in meetings with industry leaders -- comes nearly eight months after the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement first pledged to create a system for tracking near-miss incidents that could be a harbinger of bigger safety problems in offshore oil and gas development.

Bureau officials say the confidential program, being developed with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, is critical to learning more about close calls offshore and averting future accidents. But because it's a voluntary program, industry buy-in is essential to making it work.

"The voluntary, confidential near-miss reporting system has the potential to help prevent catastrophic incidents that endanger lives and the environment," said safety bureau director Brian Salerno in a statement. "However the tool is only as good as the information provided."

The safety bureau has scheduled two workshops -- April 22 in Los Angeles and April 24 in Houston -- to outline the program and get ideas for what kind of data should be harvested.

"We will need to gather input from the offshore industry on how to design a system that will yield maximum value for overall safety improvements," Salerno said.

The meetings also will give the safety bureau a shot at assuaging skeptical oil and gas companies that any reports will be kept under wraps. Even if individual reports are anonymous, some industry representatives worry about how the information will be used -- and whether it could later come back to haunt some firms.

The same sorts of fears surfaced when the air industry began collecting near-miss data from pilots, traffic controllers and other aviation workers more than three decades ago.

Federal railroad regulators also have encountered similar resistance with a close call reporting program launched in 2011. Only one of the nation's 26 commuter railroads has so far started participating in that voluntary initiative.

The safety bureau is taking pains to emphasize the under-cover nature of the offshore initiative. The agency has even put "confidential" in the program's formal name.

"Data from these reports will be analyzed by a third party and provided to BSEE," said Program Analyst Andre King. "The identity of individuals and companies who submit reports will be completely confidential."

The bureau is effectively farming out the data collection and analysis to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. The work will be walled off from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. And the resulting data turned over to the safety bureau will be aggregated, without details that could identify individual companies or callers.

"What this means for the offshore oil and gas industry is that BSEE will not have access to identifying information and will not use these reports for enforcement action," King added.

Although the program is voluntary, one company is getting compelled to cooperate. BP's recent agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to lift a government contract suspension tied to the 2010 oil spill includes a requirement that the company begin tracking leading and lagging indicators of safety problems.

BP has three months to begin collecting the data, including injury rates and instances where primary containment at a well is breached. Under the deal with EPA, BP has to report the data to its board and the safety bureau.

The 2010 oil spill sparked calls for the near miss reporting system; investigators who probed the Deepwater Horizon disaster said offshore drillers' focus on individual worker injuries can blind them to warning signs of more fundamental process safety problems.

The Center for Offshore Safety, created by the American Petroleum Institute after the 2010 spill, also aims to analyze incident data from its members. Regulators at the safety bureau have been in talks with industry representatives, including Center staff, as they develop the near miss reporting program.

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