By Ayesha Rascoe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. offshore oil and gas drillers need to take a more systematic approach to safety in all aspects of their operations to prevent another catastrophe like last year's massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a scientific panel said on Wednesday.
The National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council said in a report that it was a lack of comprehensive safety management that led to the 2010 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11 workers.
The rig explosion also ruptured BP's underwater Macondo well, unleashing more than 4 million barrels of oil into the Gulf.
Improvements in safety culture have been made since the spill, but the panel said these changes by industry and regulators need to be made permanent to guard against complacency.
"We believe there is a lot of value in establishing a safety culture that institutionalizes much of the additional attention that is being afforded right now," Donald Winter, a former secretary of the Navy who chaired the panel that authored the report, told reporters on a press call.
The report, commissioned by the Interior Department, builds on an assessment released by the panel last year that blamed the Gulf spill on a series of mistakes by BP and its contractors.
In addition to calling for systematic safety management, the panel also said rig blowout preventers, the fail-safe equipment that did not function properly in the Macondo spill, should be redesigned in light of last year's disaster.
At the time of the spill the industry had a "misplaced confidence that BOPs could provide a guarantee against a blowout," Winter said.
The blowout preventer had been touted as a last line of defense against a major spill by sealing a well in the event of a blowout, but the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer failed to shut in the well.
Regulators also failed to properly assess the risks associated with the Macondo well, the panel said.
Going forward, the panel recommended that the government consolidate safety oversight of offshore drilling in one agency and move toward a more goal-oriented safety regime.
The panel applauded the Interior Department for finalizing a worker safety rule that took a more goal-oriented approach by requiring companies to demonstrate that their operations will meet benchmarks related to health, safety and environmental protection.
The panel said the rule is a good "first step" to reforming the current regulatory system, which focuses more on dictating the way companies should drill. Critics say this more "prescriptive" system is not dynamic enough to keep pace with fast-changing industry operations.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the report validates the work his agency has done to overhaul offshore drilling regulation since the spill.
"The work we have done to implement rigorous new offshore drilling and safety rules and reform offshore regulation and oversight is in line with the recommendations of the Committee and with our goals moving forward," Salazar said in a statement.
(Editing by Jim Marshall)