The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Offshore Development: Safety Above All Else

Kate Wallace

Kate Wallace
Posted October 18, 2017

Keeping our workforce safe is just one area of continuously improving safety that the natural gas and oil industry works hard on every day. Whether it’s checking pipelines for potential damage, transporting products via rail car, storing natural gas supplies underground, or producing in deepwater, our industry is committed to safe operations as a core value. One area where the industry brings a keen focus  is the safety of offshore operations, including asset integrity and safety and environmental management systems.

With more than one of every six barrels of oil produced in the United States originating from the Outer Continental Shelf – 99% of which comes from the Gulf of Mexico – we must operate safely and responsibly every day to develop our nation’s vast offshore resources. This means our industry must  implement prevention, intervention and response processes that not only protect our workers, prevent major incidents, and provide long term integrity, but also protect our marine habitats and communities.

Even though the work to access these resources comes with significant challenges and the need for advanced technology, offshore natural gas and oil operations are safer than they’ve ever been.  Reaching this safety milestone didn’t happen overnight. It is the result of a focused and ongoing effort to protect people and the environment by continuously improving the industry’s regulations, safety practices, technology, and ability to respond to an event.

Rigorous Regulations and Standards

Every company operating offshore is strictly regulated by the Department of the Interior and its agencies, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), as well as the United States Coast Guard. Even before exploration begins, they must receive several permits and approval of on-site specific plans, and must have a functioning Safety and Environmental Management System, or SEMS. Based on API’s Recommended Practice 75, this program requires that offshore operators have and maintain their own SEMS to reduce the likelihood of incidents and establish a specific plan to protect and lessen the impact, if an incident does occur. SEMS embeds safety into all aspects of a company’s day-to-day business.

The federal government’s regulation is just one part of the story. Industry’s own API is a leader in establishing, maintaining and disseminating hundreds of safety standards. Its accredited, transparent process has developed more than 260 exploration and production standards, 91 of which are specific to offshore operations. They are widely cited in and even sometimes incorporated into international, federal and state regulations. In fact, BSEE has referenced 96 API standards in their offshore regulations in CFR Title 30 Part 250.198. They also recently cited API, recommending that operators adhere to API’s safety standard 14J 3.3.2 for gauge cock valve assembly requirements. Additionally, the companies themselves develop their own additional operating requirements and standards built upon API standards and regulations.

Standards like these are the foundation of the industry’s commitment to safety. And industry experts continuously work with government regulators to ensure that safety comes first.  These efforts were discussed in a recent hearing held by the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources of the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources to discuss the draft of the Accessing Strategic Resources Offshore Act or ASTRO Act, which proposes a number of reforms to offshore oil and natural gas development.

API’s Upstream Director, Erik Milito:

“From a safety and environmental responsibility standpoint, America’s offshore oil and natural gas industry is characterized by the continued advancement of technology and systems integrity, the application of extensive industry technical standards, and a robust regulatory regime. …the continued development and improvement of industry standards serves to promote reliability and safety in offshore operations through the use of proven engineering practices.”

Milito Testimony House Committee Hearing

Assisting and Evaluating from Every Angle

In 2011, industry founded the Center for Offshore Safety (COS) to promote the highest level of safety for offshore drilling, completions and operations through leadership and effective management systems addressing communication, teamwork, and independent third-party auditing and certification. The COS strives to instill and nurture a culture of safety throughout the industry, meaning a system that always decides in favor of safety for employees and the environment. They achieve this by creating good practice documents and significant reports, supporting the implementation and growth of integral management systems, promoting and accrediting independent third-party auditing, highlighting successes and hosting events, trainings and workshops that inspire collaboration and learning.

Each year at their Annual Safety Forum, which began in 2013 as part of its mission to “share industry knowledge,” the Center awards the coveted Safety Leadership Award, which is designed to encourage, reward and share outstanding safety-management contributions to enhance the industry’s knowledge.

The 2017 Safety Leadership Operator Award winner was Chevron, for their Human Performance program. Recognizing that people can  make mistakes, they developed seven safety-focused core principles that stem from the way people, culture, equipment and operations interact. These principles now inform updates to all processes and systems. Chevron also created customized trainings for employees at every level and five simple tools that reinforce and integrate Human Performance into everyday work activities. The men and women of Chevron deeply value the program, with 98% of the trained workforce agreeing that “the skills they learned would be applicable to their jobs.”

COS 2017 Award Winners

Industry contractors play an equally important role in the progress of safety innovation, as seen in Baker Hughes’ What Lies Beneath program, for which they received the COS’ 2017 Safety Leadership Contractor Award. Understanding and addressing why the root cause of a safety incident exists takes the focus of the entire company. Through a series of interactive learning sessions with real-world scenarios, Baker Hughes teaches its employees to look at the cultural, human and organizational performance factors that influence decisions or actions during an incident. In addition to encouraging openness and transparency, the program also gives its workforce the tools they need to proactively evaluate our processes, workflow and culture. Baker Hughes’ dedication to safety does not stop at its doors, which is why all learning sessions are available to the public on their website. 

Always Prepared

 As part of its holistic approach to protecting its employees, delivering high integrity operations and facilities as well as protecting the environment they work in, the natural gas and oil industry understands the importance of preventing but also preparing for a potential incident. This can range from having the appropriate first aid on a rig should an employee injure themselves to quickly and successfully capping a well that is seeping oil into the ocean. In both cases, having access to the proper technology and training mitigate the impact of the event.

According to Don Armijo, CEO of the Marine Well Containment Company (MWCC), the “industry can respond and contain well blowouts offshore faster than ever before.” This is thanks to the capabilities of MWCC and HWCG, two organizations that focus on advancing containment technology while maintaining a fleet of quickly-deployable ships, tools and experts to effectively respond during an oil spill. Having these experts on call 24/7 means the best assistance available is only a phone call away.

Oil spill incidents have dropped from 246 events in the 1970s to only 33 events in the 2000s, even though production has dramatically increased. This is the result of an ongoing partnership between the industry and government, which continue to dedicate the time and resources necessary to safely provide the world with the energy it needs to thrive.


Kate Wallace is an associate of research and content development for the American Petroleum Institute. Before joining API she was a researcher and policy analyst at America’s Natural Gas Alliance, and worked on pollinator conservation programs and state wildlife conservation policies before entering the energy industry. Kate graduated from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor’s degree in Resource Economics, and earned her Master of Public Administration from George Mason University. She loves taking her dogs on hikes, travelling and navigating the northern Virginia/DC craft beer and wine scenes with her friends and family.