Oil drilling in Gulf safer, but concerns linger, report says

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FILE - A large plume of smoke rises from fires on BP's Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana's tip on April 2010. A new National Academy of Science study says that 13 years after a massive BP oil spill fouled the Gulf of Mexico, regulators and industry have reduced some risks in deep water exploration in the gulf but some troublesome safety issues persist. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

Thirteen years after the massive Deepwater Horizons spill fouled the Gulf of Mexico, regulators and industry have reduced some risks in deep water exploration in the gulf but some troublesome safety issues persist, a new study by the National Academy of Sciences said.

The creation of a specific federal agency for offshore oil drilling safety, an industrywide safety center and new technology have all helped reduce risks, Tuesday's report said. But federal inspectors remain relatively powerless over contractors on rigs, which are 80% of the workers.

The report also worried about the lack of an industrywide safety culture that integrates accident prevention into everyday work.

"There are a lot of things that are happening that are really good, but the industry is not at a place'' where it should be, said panel chairman Richard Sears. He was a longtime Shell executive who was the chief technical adviser to the federal panel that initially investigated the 2010 explosion on the BP rig that killed 11 people and caused America's biggest oil spill — more than 130 million gallons.

A culture that gave lip service to safety but didn't really integrate it into the way it does business was part of the problem with the accident, Sears and others said. Some companies are treating safety the proper way — including giving flash bonuses to workers who stopped drilling because of potential dangers — but others “that don't seem to get it,” he said.

“They have not figured out how to naturally embrace safety in particular... in who they are and what they do” but instead treat it like a box to check off, Sears said.

That's far different from the more uniform industrywide safety culture seen in commercial airlines and nuclear power plants, he said.

There's a “long list” of specifics on safety culture process that “other high-risk industries” like aviation, have done but the drillers have not, said Steve Murawski, a University of South Florida marine ecologist who was a top NOAA scientist during the spill.

Federal safety inspectors lost a court case giving them power to directly regulate contractors so when they find a problem on an offshore rig they can ding the operator but not the contractor who is actually creating the problem, Sears said. It's then up to the operator to crack down on the contractor, and it becomes complicated and not as effective, he said.

The report said that was one of the problems on the Deepwater Horizons rig.

Murawski, who wasn't part of the study team, said the report highlights many of the recommendations that still haven't been put into effect 13 years after that disaster, especially changes to a key oil spill law. He also said the report shows the need for greater transparency into industry actions.

Another outside scientist involved in the spill, Christopher Reddy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, said he was impressed by “the amount of positive change since 2010” but then that was offset by the safety culture issue.

“The oil and natural gas industry and the federal government have together taken great strides to enhance the safety of offshore drilling operations,” American Petroleum Institute Vice President Holly Hopkins said.

National Academy President Marcia McNutt, who was a top Obama administration official dealing with the spill in 2010, said her concern is that officials are preparing for the last disaster, not the next one.

Still, McNutt said, the public should find the report “at least partially reassuring that this isn't high school or elementary school shootings in terms of sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the problem.”

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