Scientists urge more realism in rig emergency drills

WASHINGTON — Drilling experts, petroleum engineers and other scientists on Monday considered an array of changes to make offshore exploration safer, including putting everyone on rigs through realistic simulations of blowouts and other emergencies.

The ideas were discussed during the inaugural meeting of the new 15-member Offshore Drilling Advisory Committee established by the Interior Department to guide future regulations.

The panel plans to meet every other month to shape government mandates on preventing offshore blowouts, containing runaway wells and cleaning up after spills. Chairman Tom Hunter, the former director of Sandia National Laboratories, said he aims to deliver a report and recommendations to the Interior Department by year-end.

Stephen Hickman, a research geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., pitched the idea for emergency simulations, like the ones pilots go through.

“People are very well trained in understanding kicks, mud losses and things like that, but the speed with which these events can unfold is frightening,” Hickman said. “And I think people will tend to want to hope for the best if something is unfolding.”

Workers might react differently if they’d been through a realistic reproduction of that emergency scenario, complete with simulated warning lights, dials and indicators, Hickman said.

The nation’s top offshore drilling regulator, Michael Bromwich, was receptive.

“There is a greater need for more simulated kinds of testing, rather than tabletop exercises,” said Bromwich, director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. “The closer you can come to what your real-world conditions will be, the better able you are to assess whether you have the capabilities, the know-how and the equipment to deal with it.”

The idea for simulations involving every contractor or crew member on a vessel emerged as the panel scrutinized the conclusions of investigations of last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster.

More safety automation?

One major theme of the inquiries so far has been that management problems and human failures led to the lethal Macondo well blowout.

That makes it important to “eliminate human judgment as much as possible where mistakes could have huge consequences,” said Sean Grimsley, deputy chief counsel of the presidential commission that investigated the oil spill.

He recommended redundant safety controls that don’t require human intervention, and more automated sensors and warnings to alert key rig workers to potential problems

Grimsley also told the panel that operators should be required to use more than one active barrier to keep oil and natural gas from surging out of subsea wells.

Workers at the Macondo well were preparing to abandon the site temporarily so it could be hooked up to a production facility later, and for a time, just one cement barrier was holding the hydrocarbons underground. Workers misinterpreted tests of that barrier.

“When human judgment failed here, there was no additional line of defense,” Grimsley said. “At least having one more active barrier in place that doesn’t depend on human judgment or on pressing a button somewhere on the rig would, I think, be an easy recommendation.”

Panel members said they want to see more information about near-misses offshore and ensure it was analyzed for patterns.

Tad Patzek, chairman of the petroleum and geosystems engineering department at the University of Texas at Austin, said that when those incidents occur, information may be harvested too late to learn from it.

BP’s design changes

In other testimony Monday, BP’s Gulf of Mexico regional president, James Dupree, told the committee that the company has made changes designed to prevent a repeat of the Macondo blowout.

The new steps include ensuring that emergency equipment called blowout preventers have two blind shear rams capable of cutting through drill pipe, sealing the well hole and trapping oil and gas underground. Many blowout preventers used in the Gulf have just one ram, and redundancy improves the odds the device will work in an emergency.

Dupree stressed that BP also is requiring third-party lab testing of cement slurries used at its offshore wells. Investigators concluded that repeated tests of the cement mix used at the Macondo site indicated it might be unstable.

Although the government has approved 10 deep-water wells since lifting a ban on that kind of exploration last October (and BP has the largest share in a Noble Energy bypass well 70 miles south of Venice, La.), BP isn’t the operator in any of them.

The company has filed at least one application for a permit to drill in the deep-water Gulf. Federal regulators have stressed that BP will have to comply with the same mandates that other deep-water operators face.

Four working groups

A number of oil industry representatives are on the advisory committee, including Paul Siegele, president of Chevron Corp.’s Houston-based Energy Technology Company; Don Jacobsen, senior vice president of operations for Noble Corp.; Joseph Gebara, a structural engineer at Technip USA; and Charlie Williams, Shell’s chief scientist for well engineering and production technology.

The panel has divided into four working groups to tackle some of the weightiest issues facing offshore drilling, including how to improve safety systemwide, prevent blowouts and boost the capability to contain wells when that happens.

Panel members are tentatively planning a visit to the Gulf Coast in May or June to view containment systems, drilling technologies and spill response equipment.

jennifer.dlouhy@chron.com

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About The Author

Jennifer A. Dlouhy covers energy policy, politics and other issues for The Houston Chronicle and other Hearst Newspapers from Washington, D.C. Previously, she reported on legal affairs for Congressional Quarterly. She also has worked at The Beaumont Enterprise, The San Antonio Express-News and other newspapers. Jennifer enjoys cooking, gardening and hiking. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and toddler son.