Oil rigs are among the most regulated offshore vessels–but that wasn’t always the case. Recent disasters, including hurricanes and unprecedented explosions, have impacted the rules that those who work on oil rigs–and the companies that operate them–must follow. One of the recent disasters that heavily impacted these rules was the Deepwater Asgard tragedy, which occurred because Transocean blatantly disregarded warnings and recommendations they received from the agencies in charge of monitoring and maintaining the safe operation of oil rigs despite being in the direct path of Hurricane Zeta.
Before the Deepwater Asgard was the Deepwater Horizon, the oil rig disaster behind the famous BP oil spill of 2010. Both rigs were owned and operated by Transocean, and both were caused by human error decisions while in the path of a hurricane. Although the Deepwater Asgard disaster did not cause any deaths, unlike the Deepwater Horizon, both incidents had a heavy impact on the lives of those aboard and on regulations in the oil industry.
In this blog, we will take a closer look at the agencies that play a role in the regulation and safekeeping of oil rigs and their crews, especially when they are in the paths of hurricanes.
Bureau of Safety & Environmental Enforcement (BSEE)
Created in 2011 to regulate the offshore energy industry in swift response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the BSEE has a mission “to promote safety, protect the environment, and conserve resources offshore through vigorous regulatory oversight and enforcement.” The BSEE was established in the reorganization of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE), which had been previously known as the Mineral Management Service (MMS) since 1982.
The BSEE is made up of six national programs that set its policy and performance goals:
- Office of Offshore Regulatory Programs
- Oil Spill Preparedness Program
- Environmental Compliance Program
- National Investigations Program
- National Enforcement Program
- Office of Administration
Most notably, the Oil Spill Preparedness Program, administered by the Oil Spill Preparedness Division (OSPD), oversees the plans for and response to offshore oil spills.
In the wake of the Deepwater Asgard disaster in 2020, the BSEE published an investigation report in mid-2021 that outlined their findings. It was concluded that an inaccurate weather forecast paired with the human error decision to stay latched through the storm caused the destruction of the rig.
BSEE Safety Alert 415 was published alongside the report, outlining the challenges and dangers that inadequate preparation in advance of a storm could cause and offering recommendations to help operators and contractors avoid them. Other Safety Alerts meant to be reviewed together with 415 include Safety Alert 363: Injury Occurs When Non-Evacuated Personnel Enter Weather-Restricted Area and Safety Alert 401: BSEE Identifies Improvements to Hurricane Preparedness During Risk-Based Inspections.
National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Established in 1970 with the merging of 3 agencies dating back as far as 1807, NOAA operates with the goal of better understanding our natural world and helping to protect its resources. Its mission, “to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, ocean, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources,” directly connects to the agency’s involvement in the regulation of oil rigs. In the wake of accidents at sea, such as oil spills, NOAA plays an integral role in safe and effective cleanup efforts. Even spills on shore can have a negative impact on oceanic and coastal ecosystems; NOAA experts evaluate and regulate best practices for the preservation of these habitats long before–and long after–disaster strikes.
National Hurricane Center (NHC)
A division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the NHC was founded in 1955 with the responsibility to track and predict tropical storms such as hurricanes. From its headquarters in Miami, FL, the NHC aims to “save lives, mitigate property loss, and improve economic efficiency by issuing the best watches, warnings, forecasts, and analyses of hazardous tropical weather and by increasing understanding of these hazards.” The historical data this agency has gathered as well as its accurate forecasts play an important role in the preparedness of oil rigs in the path of tropical storms and hurricanes.
Providing actionable weather decision support for offshore and port operations, WeatherOps is a resource for weather information anywhere on the globe. WeatherOps also offers a mobile app alongside its web-based display to allow users to access their data from anywhere, such as onboard an offshore oil rig.
In fact, it was the WeatherOps data and alerts that Transocean ignored in the days leading up to the storm that caused $5 million in damage to the Deepwater Asgard.
The parent company of WeatherOps, DTN offers insights and data for a wide range of industries, such as:
- Marine and offshore
- Refined fuels
- Sports and safety
- Utilities and renewable energy
Founded in 1997, StormGeo is one of the largest privately held weather forecasting providers in the world. The corporation primarily offers its services to the offshore sector as well as renewable energy, shipping, and corporate enterprise. StormGeo’s data is used to help oil companies make decisions about the status of the oil rigs they operate, including when and how to prepare and/or evacuate for a hurricane.
How the Deepwater Horizon Changed Oil Rig Regulations
The tragic Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010, which led to one of the largest and most damaging oil spills in the history of offshore drilling and killed 11 people, inspired dramatic reform of offshore oil and gas regulation and oversight. Before the well was capped, approximately 134 million gallons of oil had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. Before the Deepwater Horizon, the worst oil spill in U.S. history occurred when the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons into Prince William Sound in Alaska in 1989.
In response to the 2010 tragedy, the U.S. government reorganized its regulatory agencies and created a new one: the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).
But that’s not all that happened in the wake of the explosion and oil spill. The House of Representatives passed the SPILL Act in 2010, which aimed to reform marine liability laws like the Death on the High Seas Act of 1920, the Jones Act of 1920, and the Limitation of Liability Act of 1851. The goal of these reformed laws was to ensure that the families of those killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion–and those affected by future disasters–would be sufficiently and justly compensated.
That same year, the House passed the Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources (CLEAR) Act and the Offshore Oil and Gas Worker Whistleblower Protection Act. Together, these strengthened oversight of offshore oil drilling, held BP responsible for the cleanup, and implemented strong safety measures. The CLEAR Act, too, ensured that oil companies pay their fair share for drilling on public lands.
Who Is Responsible for Oil Rig Safety?
While several government and private agencies each regulate different aspects of oil rig safety, for the workers and for the environment, it’s the responsibility of the oil companies to follow the rules. These companies must prioritize safety over profits; delaying an evacuation and the proper capping of a well can be detrimental to the environment and even put lives at risk.