Date:  Oct. 28, 2013




Interior Department Needs Outside Expertise to Improve Implementation of 'Best Available and Safest Technologies' Mandate for Offshore Oil and Gas Operations


WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) will need to draw on expertise outside the government to help it improve efforts to identify and develop the "best available and safest technologies" for offshore oil and gas production, as mandated by Congress, says a new report from the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council.  The agency's plans for forming an independent institute to enhance safe and responsible offshore operations across the oil and gas industry could be a "suitable vehicle" for evaluating and developing new technologies to meet the mandate, the report says, but the institute’s scope should be significantly expanded. 


After the Macondo well blowout and Deepwater Horizon oil spill, DOI sought to improve its approach for implementing the decades-old congressional mandate.  It directs the U.S. secretary of the interior to require the use of technologies deemed best available and safest -- as well as economically feasible -- for offshore oil and gas drilling and production.  DOI's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which is responsible for safety and environmental oversight of oil and gas operations, asked the committee that wrote the report to identify and evaluate a range of implementation approaches, including a planned independent institute, known as the Ocean Energy Safety Institute (OESI).


Offshore oil and gas exploration, drilling, and production pose many complex technical challenges, especially in very deep water or in harsh environments such as the Arctic. The pace of technology development to meet these challenges is rapid and constant because industry spends billions of dollars every year on drilling, development, and production activities.  However, despite BSEE's aggressive hiring and training campaign over the past two years, the agency cannot be expected to match industry's technical expertise because federal compensation limits make it difficult to attract and retain top experts, the report says. 


BSEE should enlist a multidisciplinary group of individuals with the necessary skills to perform critical technical assessments, economic analysis, and independent reviews when needed, the report says. The planned institute would greatly aid in tapping the additional talent BSEE needs, as long as OESI is properly organized, staffed, and supported.  However, the proposed funding level of up to $5 million over five years to launch OESI is likely to be insufficient for purposes other than planning and could limit BSEE’s ability to attract and retain key personnel.


OESI's scale and structure need to be significantly expanded to fully address the range of offshore challenges, the report adds.  Instead of relying on short-term agreements to fund the institute, BSEE should consider broadening the charter to evolve into either a federally funded research and development center or a university-affiliated research center, either of which would be permitted to receive funding over a longer period.  Stable funding would enable OESI to develop a reliable source of technical expertise.  BSEE should also consider locating the institute in the Houston area along the Texas Gulf Coast, where much of the technical expertise is already located.


To strengthen in-house talent, BSEE should consider hiring a reputable chief engineer or chief scientist with expertise in offshore drilling and production activities to work within the bureau and serve as an interface with OESI.  BSEE could also recruit industry retirees and develop a "cross-posting" system with technical staff rotating between government and industry, similar to the one used by the Federal Aviation Administration. 


BSEE's evaluation of candidate technologies to meet the “best available and safest” mandate should examine the overall complexity of the entire system in which the technologies will be used, as well as interactions of components, human operators, and the geologic environment, the report says.  In addition, assessments of the economic impacts of implementing new technologies should include potential costs of disrupting drilling and production operations as new, immature technologies are introduced.  The report notes that best available and safest technologies that are universally applicable are likely to be limited because of the diversity of types of oil and gas exploration activities and the requirement that technologies must be "fit for purpose," meaning that they must be designed for their specific intended application.


Industry competition drives much technology development, creating an inherent push of new technologies, including those that improve safety. BSEE should also consider using legislative or regulatory incentives to hasten the deployment of new safety technology, the report says. Systematic analyses of operations and near misses, as well as accidents, can also spur technology development.  The report notes that the range of such technologies should be broad, from advanced instruments to often-overlooked human factors. 


The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of the Interior.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to NAS in 1863.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit  A committee roster follows.



Molly Galvin, Senior Media Relations Officer

Chelsea Dickson, Media Relations Associate

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Pre-publication copies of Best Available and Safest Technologies for Offshore Oil and Gas Operations: Options for Implementation are available from the National Academies Press on the Internet at or by calling tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242.  Reporters may obtain a copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


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Marine Board


Committee on Options for Implementing the Requirement of Best Available and Safest Technologies for Offshore Oil and Gas Operations

Donald C. Winter* (chair)

Secretary of the Navy (retired)

Independent Consultant and Professor of Engineering Practice

University of Michigan

Ann Arbor


Paul M. Bommer

Senior Lecturer

Department of Petroleum and Geosystems

University of Texas



Robert Brenner

Senior Fellow

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Duke University

Washington, D.C.


Anthony P. Ciavarelli

President and Chief Scientist

Human Factors Associates Inc.

Lake Oswego, Ore.


Louis Anthony (Tony) Cox Jr.*


Cox Associates LLC



James S. Dyer

Fondren Centennial Chair

McCombs School of Business

University of Texas



Thomas R. Kitsos

Ocean Policy Consultant

Bethesda, Md.


Donald Liu*

Independent Consultant

Willis, Texas


Roger L. McCarthy*

Private Engineering Consultant

McCarthy Engineering

Palo Alto, Calif.


Charles E. McQueary

Independent Consultant

Greensboro, N.C.


Richard A. Sears

Consulting Professor

Engineering Resources Engineering

Stanford University

Stanford, Calif.


Gordon H. Sterling (retired)

Independent Consultant

The Woodlands, Texas


Manuel Terranova

CEO and President

Peaxy Inc.

San Jose, Calif.




Raymond A. Wassel

Study Director


* Member, National Academy of Engineering