National Lab Works To Improve Safety for Offshore Oil and Gas Industry

With funding from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the Argonne National Laboratory will explore using a method known for analyzing nuclear systems to enhance safety in offshore oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

Towing Oil Rig Offshore Louisiana
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Offshore oil and gas operations are a testament to modern industry’s capabilities. Routine processes mask significant complexity. Seamless operation is essential. Operations affect regional economies and worker safety as well as the environment.

Now, the National Academies of Sciences has thrown its support behind a project that aims to improve offshore oil and gas operations in the Gulf of Mexico. A team of scientists, spearheaded by researchers at the US Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, will apply a methodology known for ensuring that complex things operate as they should.

The team has experience in this arena. In 2020, Argonne was selected to help improve the safety of offshore natural gas operations in the Eastern Mediterranean. That project included aligning the method Argonne uses—the Success Path Method—with the requirements of an international quality management standard adopted by industries worldwide.

“This evolving offshore environment changes the nature of risks and calls for an approach that can help improve safety for the Gulf community and its energy systems,” said Bruce Hamilton, Argonne program lead of global energy solutions. “Our work is going to be directed at improving safety and the livelihoods of impacted communities in the Gulf.”

Argonne has also used the methodology to improve process safety for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The US agency is dedicated to promoting safety, protecting the environment, and conserving offshore resources.

The Success Path Method was developed to improve safety in high-stakes activities. For example, it is useful in the design of nuclear power plants so the plants can withstand severe natural hazards. It focuses on what must go right. Scientists deduced that this focus was more valuable to decision-making than trying to identify the near-infinite number of ways that things can go wrong. It deconstructs complex processes or activities into all the components and actions needed for successful execution. It can then integrate this information into a larger safety management system and safety culture by helping people develop a solid understanding of the roles they play in key processes.

One strength of the approach is that it can be used to assess any complicated and intricate process. This makes it attractive to multiple industries and regulating bodies.

Dave Grabaskas, manager of the Licensing and Risk Assessments group in Argonne’s Nuclear Sciences and Engineering (NSE) division, said he believes the team’s work will make an immediate and positive impact in the Gulf.

“The offshore oil and gas industry voluntarily and anonymously shares information about component failures or system failures with the Bureau of Transportation Statistics,” Grabaskas said. “Our team will be able to leverage that data to see where the industry is currently experiencing operational or safety issues. We hope to target those areas first. It’s a nice example of industry coming together and working to improve safety and reliability across the industry as a whole.”

Hamilton, the team’s leader, agrees.

“We are directing our work at improving safety and the livelihoods of impacted communities in the Gulf,” he said. “Current changes in the offshore environment in the Gulf of Mexico are already altering the nature of risks.”

For example, Hamilton noted that climate change is contributing to more frequent severe weather events. As a result, the US is transitioning to new types of energy activities, including carbon capture and storage, hydrogen projects and infrastructure, offshore wind generation, and additional electrification of offshore oil and gas installations. These and future changes, Hamilton said, call for an approach that can help improve safety for the Gulf community and its energy systems.

“The core of Argonne’s program is sustained safety data collection and analysis,” Hamilton said. “With partners in industry and academia, we can develop training curriculums so that enhanced safety assessment methods can be taught in universities and educate a new generation of oil and gas professionals.”

Researchers from Tulane University, the University of Houston, and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics will work closely with Argonne’s team of researchers.