The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

The Offshore Energy Safety Imperative

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 10, 2017

As the Trump administration weighs opening the Mid-Atlantic outer continental shelf to future oil and natural gas development, a number of people who work and live in coastal areas appropriately wonder whether offshore energy can be produced safely, without undue risks.

The answer is yes.

These conversations are happening this week in North Carolina, which is gathering the public’s input as officials in Washington prepare a revised federal offshore leasing program that will be a blueprint for energy development on the outer continental shelf (OCS) for the next several years – not just in the Atlantic, but potentially the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific and the Arctic as well. Given the years it takes to bring an offshore energy project online, putting together a robust leasing program now is key to America’s energy security in the future.

In the Mid-Atlantic region, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia could see significant economic benefits resulting from offshore development. A study a few years ago projected tens of thousands of jobs supported in the three states by offshore energy activity:

projected_jobs_nc_va_sc

As well as millions in cumulative industry spending in the three states through 2035:

projected_offshore_spending

David McGowan, executive director of the North Carolina Petroleum Council, speaking at a public meeting this week in Wilmington:

“Embracing our nation’s offshore energy potential would bring enormous benefits to North Carolina. Our state is uniquely positioned to add thousands of additional jobs and increase local revenue through safe and environmentally responsible offshore energy development. The industry has a long history of safe offshore operations, which can safely coexist with our tourism and fishing industries while providing much needed diversity for local economies.”

As McGowan indicates, the natural gas and oil industry recognizes that developing energy offshore – to generate economic numbers like those above – is tied to safe and responsible operations. And, contrary to some of the things said at public meetings and in the media, industry is well able, thanks to experience and advanced technology, to safely produce oil and natural gas on the OCS. Safety isn’t simply an industry priority, it’s an imperative.

One of API’s chief functions is as a standards-setting organization, dating to its inception nearly a century ago. Our standards development process is transparent and collaborative – pulling together industry experts, government regulators, engineers, academics and non-governmental organizations – and is accredited by the American National Standards Institute, which also accredits similar programs at a number of national laboratories.

API offshore standards cover everything from well construction to platform stabilization to cutting-edge technologies for blowout prevention and well containment, reflected in industry-associated response entities (see here and here). Some of the most recently published API standards pertain to offshore development, such as those covering subsea production system reliability, technical risk and integrity management; offshore cargo carrying units; and specifications for subsea umbilicals. Highly technical documents such as these are at the heart of industry’s efforts to ensure safe equipment and safe operations offshore (and onshore). As with all API standards, these are regularly evaluated and upgraded and supplemented with new standards when necessary.

Industry standards are respected by government entities that work with our companies and/or oversee offshore energy activities. The primary federal agency monitoring offshore safety, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), references 96 API standards in its offshore regulations. Just last week, BSEE's summer safety bulletin referenced an API standard for a shipboard valve that helps prevent or mitigate fluid loss. More than 130 API standards are referred to more than 430 times by agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, EPA, the Federal Trade Commission and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Making safe offshore operations even safer is the reason industry created the Center for Offshore Safety more than five years ago. The center works with individual companies to systematize safe operations through effective safety and environmental management systems that the federal government requires of OCS operators. Based on API technical standards like those noted above, these safety systems are designed to prevent incidents and protect workers and the environment, and they are subject to regular third-party audits. These systems form industry’s “safety culture” in offshore development.

Drilling for the oil and natural gas that drive our country’s economy and support Americans’ modern standard of living is an industrial process with acknowledged risks – risks that can be managed through training, regularly updated standards, technological advances and effective federal and state oversight. Our companies recognize that successful offshore development depends on community confidence and support. These stem from industry’s ability to work safely and in an environmentally responsible manner – from safe seismic surveying to locate underwater oil and natural gas (which the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management just announced is safe for the Gulf of Mexico), to transporting produced oil and gas to refineries and processing facilities onshore.

Indeed, industry is working safely in other parts of the country with sensitive ecosystems and that depend on fishing and tourism, such as the Gulf. A recent Energy In Depth report found that energy development in Gulf Coast states and off their coasts coexists with flourishing tourism and fishing industries. According to the report, tourism and recreation industries grew in jobs, wages and economic contributions from 2005 to 2014. Visitor spending in the Gulf Coast states totaled $217.5 billion last year, the report says.

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Offshore energy development is safe and technologically advanced, and industry is working continually to make it safer. Again, coastal communities’ valid desire to protect beaches, tourism and fishing is the desire of our companies as well – and this is being borne out in performance, steady improvements in technology and proactive standards-setting that supports a consistency across the breadth of industry. Safety is an effort that never rests. Jack Gerard, API president and CEO:

“America’s oil and natural gas industry and our regulators have kept our commitment to make offshore operations safer than ever before. … We will continue to build on these achievements because our goal is zero accidents and zero spills. Our daily commitment is one of constant improvement until that goal becomes reality.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.