WASHINGTON — For decades, the federal government has kept an eye on offshore drilling by deploying inspectors to conduct on-site reviews of rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.
But when the inspectors leave, drilling continues virtually unmonitored, exposing a weakness in the government’s oversight of offshore oil and gas exploration.
Now the nation’s top drilling regulator is taking aim at that vulnerability with a plan to supplement rig inspections by putting government engineers to work studying pressure readings, fluid levels and other real-time data streaming from offshore wells.
In the future, “we may rely somewhat less on our inspectors going on rigs, having their clipboards, going through lists and checking whether the rigs meet certain requirements,” said Michael Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Instead, he said, “there is a need for more instrumentation on these rigs to provide real-time kinds of electronic data to us as a regulator.”
“We need people who are skilled and trained in understanding that kind of data,” added Bromwich, who spoke at a Platts Energy Podium newsmaker event recently.
Bromwich’s vision could provide a framework for his coming overhaul of how federal regulators inspect offshore facilities.
The government now has 56 inspectors and 114 engineers who focus on thousands of offshore facilities in the Gulf. Administration officials and lawmakers alike have called that number woefully inadequate. The administration has asked Congress to give the bureau $100 million, which would help pay for 200 more employees.
Bromwich is visiting Texas and Louisiana colleges this week as part of a recruiting drive to hire 30 inspectors and 30 engineers.
In the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, some lawmakers called for the government to go further and put inspectors on offshore rigs to monitor drilling activities around the clock.
But that is a costly, labor-intensive proposal that could spur the same kinds of “cozy” relationships between regulators and industry workers that President Barack Obama has excoriated.
Bromwich’s alternative would put real-time data from offshore wells in front of government-employed petroleum engineers who could keep a close watch during vital drilling operations or when anomalies are detected.
Investigations of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion have revealed rig workers did not react quickly enough to counter a dangerous surge in drill-pipe pressure at BP’s doomed Macondo well. It’s possible another set of eyes on those pressure readings could have prompted rig workers to intervene earlier.
Already in use
Many drilling contractors and oil companies already use high-tech monitoring systems to keep track of what’s happening offshore – even from computer centers hundreds of miles inland.
Shell Oil Co. relies on a network of seven real-time operation centers worldwide to monitor its drilling operations. BP is building a 24/7 center in Houston.
Other major oil companies also monitor real-time data from land. And some smaller independents contract with monitoring services for that kind of around-the-clock, land-based analysis.
Houston-based National Oilwell Varco provides systems using sensors on rig parts and down the drill hole to measure pressures, the weights on drilling bits, changes in torque and other parameters.
Data is transmitted to personnel on-site and onshore. Vital information can be streamed in real time using satellite connections, with typically just a half second delay before those figures show up on computerized dashboards hundreds of miles away from the rig.
“We are measuring all of the major forces at the rig,” said Trey Mebane, director of business development at National Oilwell Varco.
For operators, the technology is a way to increase efficiency, keep a close watch on activity during key moments in the drilling process and boost safety.
For instance, by getting readings of the fluids going in and out of a well, workers on site and on shore can immediately respond to anomalies that could indicate dangerous gas intrusions into the well.
The information flows from offshore rigs to onshore computer terminals and is accessible via password-protected websites.
Increasingly, energy companies can tap into data without being tethered to a terminal. For instance, companies using monitoring services provided by Calgary, Alberta-based Pason Systems can view data from wells on BlackBerry handheld devices.
But that information isn’t readily available to federal regulators, who now review drilling plans before approving wells and typically study pressure test readings and other figures as part of the inspection process.
Regulators also require some data to be logged and archived, a rich tool for analysis after accidents.
Before streaming real-time data from well sites to regulators’ offices, the government would have to invest in equipment and highly skilled workers with the know-how to interpret the results. The ocean energy bureau also would have to mandate that information-sharing.
“There’s no replacement for physical inspections” of rigs, a senior agency official said. “But the thing with physical inspections is, you’re not going to be on every facility 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”
Remote monitoring could bridge that gap – at least during critical periods.
“We’re not going to want to be sitting there in a control room constantly monitoring 3,000 facilities,” the official added. But, it would be helpful for regulators “to have the capability to say there’s something critical happening on this platform now. … I want to watch this one now and to be able to do so.”
The idea rings alarm bells for some industry officials, who worry about the sharing of proprietary information.
On some projects, companies “keep a very close guard on the information to protect their interests and their future,” said Andy Radford, a senior policy adviser with the American Petroleum Institute. “So that’s something that would be one of the major concerns – the security of the data and how is that data going to be used.”