Feds get advice from industry, engineers on beefing up blowout preventers

Federal regulators crafting new regulations to boost the reliability and power of emergency equipment used as a last line of defense against surging oil and gas at offshore wells will get feedback from energy companies, drilling engineers and other experts on Tuesday.

During a day-long forum at the Interior Department, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement will scrutinize potential requirements for ensuring the devices known as blowout preventers are capable of slicing through drill pipe and debris and sealing off subsea wells.

The mandates seek to respond to vulnerabilities exposed by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, when the five-story blowout preventer at BP’s doomed Macondo well failed to block a lethal surge of explosive oil and gas.

A forensic investigation of the BOP unearthed from the site determined the device was unable to slash through a piece of off-center drill pipe, seal the well hole and trap oil and gas underground. Surging oil and gas had caused that pipe to buckle and shift outside of the space where those shearing rams could slice through obstacles.

A National Academy of Engineering report released last December called for major changes to the design and testing of blowout preventers to ensure they can work under a wide range of scenarios. The group also said workers needed to be better trained to operate the devices in emergencies.

Bureau Director James Watson said Tuesday’s forum will build on assessments by industry, the National Academy of Engineers and other investigators.

“We have enough information, we’ve had discussions with the industry,” Watson said earlier this month. “The reports of the president’s oil spill commission, the National Academy of Engineering and our own investigation conducted jointly with the Coast Guard identified significant weaknesses and provided numerous, substantive recommendations that need to be addressed sooner rather than later.”

A new blowout preventer rule could include mandates for an additional set of shearing rams — potentially boosting the odds of successfully cutting drill pipe — and additional sensors for tracking the precise location of the blades. It also is expected to outline fresh requirements for manufacturing and repairing the devices.

BP is already using a second set of blind shear rams on the blowout preventers it uses to guard wells in the Gulf of Mexico. And Shell Oil Co. has pledged to use two rams on BOPs for exploratory drilling it hopes to launch in the Arctic Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer.

But some shallow-water drillers — where the BOPs are often carried on board jack-up rigs — have cautioned that adding an extra set of valves and rams could make the devices too tall for older vessels.

Regulators at the safety bureau also are evaluating how — and whether — to require new real-time monitoring technologies that would help diagnose and detect kicks of gas at wells. They also are considering new requirements for the maintenance of the devices and the training of workers who will operate them in an emergency.

Watson said Tuesday’s forum will allow experts and industry “to participate in an open and candid dialogue about how we can take the next step in offshore drilling safety.”

Expected participants include engineers and forensic experts who have studied blowout preventers and executives from companies that manufacture the devices and are designing new rams to cut through thick tool joints connecting pieces of pipe. Representatives from companies that test blowout preventers — in accordance with new requirements unveiled after the Deepwater Horizon disaster — also are expected to speak at the event.

A rundown of the core parts of the forum are day is below:
9 a.m. Introductory remarks by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar
9:15 a.m. Panel #1 – Technology Needs from Deepwater Horizon
10:00 a.m. Panel #2 – What new design requirements are needed to provide assurances that BOPs will cut and seal effectively under foreseeable operating conditions?
11:15 a.m. Panel #3 – What manufacturing, test, maintenance, and certification requirements should be established to ensure the operability and reliability of BOP equipment?
1:30 p.m. Panel #4 – What real time technologies are available to measure the “health” of BOPs in service and aid in detecting and responding to “kicks”?
2:45 p.m.Panel #5 – What type of training and certification should be required for key industry personnel?
4:15 p.m. Closing remarks by Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director James Watson