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July 12, 2011

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MEPs back UK offshore safety regime as template for EU

A committee in Brussels has endorsed a report to tighten offshore oil and gas safety in European waters, based largely on the UK’s safety-case approach.

The European Parliament’s Energy Committee met yesterday (12 July) to vote on plans for EU-wide laws on oil and gas safety standards, which were drafted in response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in April last year.

Following that event, EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger raised concerns about Europe’s current legislative approach to oil and gas operations, and threatened to propose “a European framework for ‘controlling the controllers’, if need be”.

The Energy Committee’s report, which secured 41 votes in favour and six votes against, disputes such a proposal, arguing that a European regulator would bring little added value to justify “draining scarce regulatory resources” from national authorities.

The draft resolution makes direct reference to the use of the safety-case approach in the North Sea as the model for an improved US regime – one of the first recommendations made by the US National Commission set up to investigate the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Going on to describe the approach, the resolution describes the safety case as “a risk-based, site-specific approach, which requires operators to demonstrate to the relevant national health, safety and environmental authorities that all risks have been considered and controls implemented. Any residual risks should correspond to the ALARP principle. The relevant authority should approve the safety case, as well as any subsequent changes to it, before any operations can commence.”

It concludes: “Any new proposal must not diminish the effectiveness of such regulatory standards already in place in Member States, but rather look to extend best practice to all EU waters, while ensuring it is rigorously implemented.”

To this effect, the resolution suggests that joint initiatives between national competent authorities, modelled on the North Sea Offshore Authorities Forum, should be encouraged. It explains: “The Mediterranean, Baltic and Black seas can benefit from an equivalent forum, where regulators assess industry trends and best practice, react to incidents, and spread knowledge, inter alia, by undertaking multinational audit projects and establishing working groups reporting to regular plenaries.”

The resolution also underlines the importance of: workforce engagement in establishing a rigorous safety culture – highlighting the UK’s Step Change in Safety programme as an example of such an approach; protection for whistleblowers to encourage reporting of safety hazards; disaster-management scenario training; and procedures governing the submission, consultation and approval of site-specific contingency plans.

Commenting on the vote, the leader of the Liberal Democrat delegation in the European Parliament, Fiona Hall MEP, said: “MEPs have sent a strong signal to the EU Commission to ensure that offshore oil and gas activities are subjected to the highest safety standards in all European waters, largely based on the UK’s safety-case approach. But more than that, we must push the industry to employ the same EU safety standards wherever they are operating in the world.”

She continued: “The Commission has already indicated that it is prepared to tighten up the rules. It is very important that this is done in an effective way, building on established best practice in some Member States, in particular, the UK’s safety-case approach, and a strictly enforced safety culture.”

Malcolm Webb, chief executive of industry body Oil & Gas UK, told SHP: “Oil & Gas UK welcomes the ITRE Committee’s recognition of the merits of the UK’s ‘safety-case’ regime and its acknowledgement that duplicating, or compromising existing good practice must be avoided.

“Oil & Gas UK also echo the Committee’s concerns that an EU-level ‘controller of controllers’ will not bring sufficient added value to justify draining scarce regulatory resources from national competent authorities. Any new EU legislative proposals must be carefully conceived in order to add genuine value. If, however, they risk adversely affecting the already fit-for-purpose regulatory regime in place in the UK, Oil & Gas UK will strongly oppose them. Oil & Gas UK will therefore closely monitor the evolution of the report and the result of the Parliament’s Plenary vote this autumn.”

The Commission is due to publish a legislative package on offshore oil and gas activities in September.

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