Federal regulators on Wednesday issued a final set of standards meant to boost the design, cementing and safety of offshore wells in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster two years ago.
The final drilling safety rule tweaks existing mandates that were imposed in October 2010 in response to the lethal blowout of BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico.
It also responds to industry concerns that the first version — imposed on an emergency basis after the spill — was muddled and riddled with conflicting requirements.
James Watson, the head of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement that wrote the new standards, said the final measure was refined “based on input from stakeholders” as well as investigations into the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
“The administration’s priority is continuing to expand offshore oil and gas development while ensuring that drilling operations in our oceans continue to be the safest in the world,” Watson said in a statement.
The rule essentially codifies industry’s existing best practices for designing and securing offshore wells, just as it did two years ago. Even before Wednesday’s updates, the regulation also imposed new requirements for certifying, inspecting and maintaining emergency devices known as blowout preventers that are a last line of defense against unexpected oil and gas surges.
But oil and gas companies complained that the first rule was improperly worded _ causing confusion and, they said, potentially injecting new risks into some offshore operations.
The problem stemmed from regulators’ decision in 2010 to broadly reference American Petroleum Institute recommended practices, rather than rewrite those standards in the regulation itself. Under the interim drilling safety rule issued two years ago, any time the API standards said operators “should” do something, it effectively meant they “must” do it.
API said the word “should” appears some 14,000 times in 80 different standards that appeared to be referenced by the 2010 rule. And because API’s recommended practices sometimes offer companies an array of choices, the language of the rule made all of those options mandatory.
“You can’t paint your house red, white and blue if it’s supposed to be one color,” noted Erik Milito, API’s upstream director.
Recognizing the problem, regulators memos in late 2010 and March 2011 clarifying the first rule and promising to address the problems in a final version.
The final regulation resolves what has become known as the “should-to-must” problem.
The rewritten rule also refines testing requirements for cement used to secure offshore wells and clarifies requirements for barriers at the sites. Under the final rule, offshore operators will have to have at least two barriers in place and securing a well before removing a blowout preventer from the site. That responds to concerns that even if one barrier failed, there would be another in place to help prevent the unchecked flow of oil and gas out of the well.
And the final rule broadens some two-year-old requirements for blowout preventers, extending a requirement for using them to well completions, workovers and other offshore activities that weren’t covered by the first rule. Those changes were driven by recommendations from a Coast Guard and Interior Department investigation of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
The measure also scales back pressure testing requirements, in response to concerns that the 2010 mandate for negative pressure tests on all wells actually could boost risks. The final regulation requires negative pressure tests _ which help determine the integrity of cement barriers _ only on wells that use a subsea blowout preventer or have a so-called mudline suspension system.
Industry trade groups had argued that some new testing requirements in the 2010 rule could boost risks for offshore workers.
For instance, the initial rule required inspections and preventative maintenance of some equipment every time it was moved from one well to another. But, Milito noted, offshore operators may do some low-risk work in succession, one well after another, very quickly. Requiring maintenance in between each well _ potentially just a few days after a previous inspection _ would mean more lifts of heavy equipment.
“If you’re doing these batch operations that are known to have a low level of risk, then you’re requiring multiple heavy lifts of a piece of equipment that weighs thousands of pounds, and you’re increasing a new risk,” Milito said.
API spokesman Reid Porter said the group was studying the final rule.
“We are reviewing the rule as released and hope that they carefully considered the language used in the document to allow certainty and clarity for the industry,” Porter said.
Other new offshore drilling requirements are expected in coming months. The safety bureau is set to propose new mandates for boosting the reliability and power of blowout preventers, after potentially widespread problems revealed during a forensic examination of the one used at Macondo.