On Monday the Government, through the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) launched a consultation on proposed changes to the current offshore safety regime.  The consultation is as to the Government's proposals as to how to implement an EC Offshore Safety Directive published on 28 June last year.  The UK must, in accordance with EC law implement the Directive into domestic law by 15 July next year.

Already, and prior to the consultation process, the industry has voiced concerns and opposition to some of the proposals that are likely to find their way into UK law.  Those concerns are not simply a knee jerk reaction to more regulation but based on many years of operational experience driven by a desire to operate to the highest standards of health, safety and environmental management.  If anyone had any doubts as to the absolute priority given to matters of safety by the industry, those doubts would have been dispelled by a visit to the Piper 25 conference held last year commemorating the tragic events on the Piper Alpha platform in 1988.

The Directive envisages changes to the way in which the industry addresses and manages health, safety and environmental risks but also proposes changes to the enforcement of legislation, primarily through the establishment of one offshore regulator, known as a "Competent Authority".  At present both DECC and HSE have enforcement responsibilities.  There are a total of 11 changes aimed at the industry (as opposed to the Competent Authority) outlined in the Directive.

So why do the changes proposed in the Directive cause such concern to an industry where safety is paramount?  The opposition is, I would suggest, founded not on self- interest but on many years of experience learned from assessing and managing risk from offshore activities.  That of course includes learning from those, thankfully few but tragic, incidents where risks have not been contained.  Oil and Gas UK, the leading industry body, states categorically that it supports the drive/desire for continuing improvement of national and international regulatory frameworks.  Its concern is that the Directive and the regulations that will flow from it will have the opposite effect.  In the short term it is concerned that if implemented the regulations will have a detrimental impact on safety standards in the UK offshore oil and gas industry, and longer term, will not lead to significant improvements in overall standards.

The principal concern is as to the proposal to change the concept of what is termed the "operator" in existing legislation.  The proposal, subject to the current consultation, is that under the new regime the "operator" will be appointed by the licensee and approved by the Licensing Authority or, in a marked change to current practice, appointed by the Licensing Authority in consultation with the Competent Authority. Question marks remain as to whether the Licensing Authority, likely to be DECC or any replacement regulator established following implementation of the Wood Review, will have the necessary skills set and understanding of the industry to appoint "operators" on the industry's behalf.  

The view of DECC/HSE is that this will lead to greater accountability and improvement in standards of safety and environmental management.  That view is not accepted by the industry at large.  Their view, formed over many years of experience of operating offshore, is that such a system would not enhance but would indeed detract from existing standards.  Furthermore, and fundamentally, it fails to recognise the role played by contractors in offshore operations.  The use of contractors has been a feature of offshore activities for many years.  They are skilled and experienced organisations and are subject to health and safety and environmental requirements in any event.  The suggestion that the new regime will in some way make licensees, generally the large oil and gas companies, more accountable is not accepted by the industry nor is the evidential basis upon which the changes are premised.

The government is of the view that the proposed changes will lead to enhanced safety and environmental standards, a more "joined up" regulatory regime and ultimately savings in costs.  None of those assertions are accepted by the industry.

The new regime bears great similarity to the current onshore COMAH arrangements, which apply to potentially hazardous installations.  The effectiveness of COMAH regulations has itself been subject to some debate.

Given the industry's commitment to obtaining and maintaining the highest standards of safety and environmental management it must be hoped that its representations, based on years of experience, on some occasions bitter, will not be looked upon as self-serving but will be given the weight and respect they deserve.  This is not an industry "gripe" but a responsible approach to a matter of wide industry and indeed public concern.