More than a century of experience behind our Spill Risk team

Article published in the Regulator | Issue 2: 2019

Before an energy resource company can undertake offshore petroleum activities, it has to convince NOPSEMA’s spill risk experts that all practicable measures are in place to prevent and respond to oil pollution.

NOPSEMA’s Spill Risk Team is made up of environmental specialists and spill risk experts with hands-on experience in responding to oil spills and mitigating pollution risks. Team Manager, Rhys Jones says staff have worked in practical response roles in industry and government across Australia and internationally and hold advanced qualifications in areas such as marine pollution, environmental economics, environmental science, biology and habitat ecology.

“We’re a team of six and between us we have about 120 years of valuable experience and offer a broad cross-section of diverse skills in specialist areas with many response deployments under our collective belts,” Mr Jones said.

“Our official role is to ensure that titleholders proposing to undertake offshore oil and gas activities are prepared for a timely response to oil pollution, so we assess their environment plan and oil pollution emergency plans. We look at their response arrangements and try to figure out whether they are sufficient or what needs to be done better, smarter, or more efficiently. We also use our collective knowledge and experience to influence the companies to take up best practices and improve their planning and preparedness for emergency response.”

As part of the assessment process, all components of an environment plan are analysed, including chosen control measures and suggested implementation standards for emergency response and risk mitigation.

Mr Jones says he relies on the team’s collective expertise, experience, knowledge, latest research and scientific findings when assessing submissions.

“Major oil spills are extremely rare and therefore unfamiliar to many. But for the professionals who have experience in this area, we appreciate that there’s a well-established body of knowledge about how to respond to an oil spill, as there is for fire, explosion, or other incidents. There are common approaches for responding and we are looking to find out whether the proponents understand the specific risks of their activity and whether they are applying the right approach to deal with it.”

As NOPSEMA’s primary role is the prevention of major accident events to ensure the safety of the workforce and protection of the environment, NOPSEMA plays an important role in assessing individual activity proposals to ensure risks are as low as reasonably practicable and that environmental impacts are acceptable.

“Everything we’re looking at is about whether the necessary arrangements are in place to reduce the risk to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP),” Mr Jones said.

NOPSEMA recognises that no offshore petroleum activity is without risk but is committed to applying appropriate measures and controls to reduce risk to an acceptable and ALARP level, in accordance with Commonwealth regulations.

“Our focus is prevention and preparedness. The purpose of the OPEP is for the proponents to outline exactly how they would respond to an oil spill. For example, they need to explain how they’re going to get all the people they need with the right experience to actually run an incident control as well as the necessary equipment to respond,” Mr Jones said.

“If a spill was to occur, the proponent must implement their response plans. As the regulator, in our regulatory role, we would be observing what they’re doing and if necessary we would use our powers to intervene. We would be ensuring compliance with their plan in terms of response. But if at some point we thought that what was in the plan might not be appropriate anymore with new information, we could intervene and tell them to do something different.”

To comply with the Environment Regulations, proponents need to be able to demonstrate and test their arrangements.

“We’re constantly challenging and testing industry to make sure they’ve done enough. Pushing to see if they can do better. We wouldn’t accept a plan if we didn’t think it addressed the requirements of the regulations. Likewise, they are required to test their own arrangements through regular exercises and drills,” Mr Jones said.

“It’s our job to assess a plan and make sure the plan’s going to manage the risk but it’s also our job to be talking to industry to see if they can do better, and going out and inspecting a company’s readiness to respond”.

We have a privileged perspective across industry. We get to see lots of plans and lots of ways of doing things. While we can’t discuss assessment specifics, we can use our privileged perspective to raise awareness of the collaborative opportunities available to titleholders.”