Feds meet with Houston oil execs about Gulf accidents

The nation’s top offshore energy regulators met with a group of Houston oil and gas executives Thursday to discuss safety issues after a recent series of accidents in the Gulf of Mexico.

James Watson, who heads the Bureau of Safety and Environmental  Enforcement, and Tommy Beaudreau, head of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and acting assistant interior secretary for lands and minerals management,  met with the executives in a downtown energy company office.

Beaudreau told FuelFix in an interview after the meeting that its intent was to encourage better communication about safety issues, not to suggest a need for more government intervention.

“I don’t think the recent incidents change anything,” Beaudreau said in an interview with FuelFix, responding to a question about whether the accidents might result in general action like the moratorium imposed after the deadly 2010 Gulf oil spill.

“There is broad recognition of the challenges of and opportunities in offshore drilling, and that deep water and shallow water is key to the U.S. portfolio and energy security and robust economic activity. It all carries risk.”

Beaudreau’s and Watson’s boss, Interior  Secretary Sally Jewell, joined the discussion by video, according to a news release from the  Bureau of Safety and Environmental  Enforcement.

“The meeting follows three loss of well control incidents in shallow water operations since February,” according to the news release. “All three incidents resulted in no significant injuries or pollution, but a November 2012 explosion that occurred during maintenance activities claimed the lives of three workers.”

The agency did not immediately confirm the executives or companies attending the Thursday conference, but said that several operators and drilling contractors were invited, including Chevron, Apache, Diamond Offshore, Ensco and Freeport McMoran.

Randall Luthi, president of the National Ocean Industries Association, a trade group, participated and later issued a statement calling the meeting “a good starting point for continued discussions between industry and regulators of what can be done moving forward to further minimize risks and prevent future incidents.”

The direct impetus for the gathering was last week’s blowout of a natural gas well off the Louisiana coast. Forty-four workers evacuated safely and no oil spilled, but natural gas flowing from the well ignited on the drilling rig.

Beaudreau said that industry representatives  at the meeting identified a range of challenges in working in shallow waters, such as ensuring that the crew is experienced and well-trained and providing sufficient oversight of contractors.

Members also discussed the problems associated with the aging infrastructure on the Continental Shelf — the region generally defined by operations in  less than 500 feet of water.

They also agreed on a need for  better communication within the industry on what can be learned from accidents and near misses , and that the industry would benefit from sharing the information more actively, Beaudreau said.

He said that regulators expect industry to lead efforts to address the identified issues, but that the government also will review current rules to ensure they are adequate

“I think there is a lot of room for industry to step up on these issues,” Beaudreau said. “The purpose of the meeting was not to change tack or suggest a different direction, but to reinforce the principles of safety and redouble efforts to work together.”

An investigation of last week’s accident is ongoing, and may help shape future regulations, Beaudreau said.

“As with any incident and the issues that come up, we will be looking at regulation and whether there is any lesson to be drawn from a particular incident that can better inform regulation,” Beaudreau said.

The well sealed itself  two days after the blowout when sand and sediment blocked the gas flow in a phenomenon called bridging. A rig is on site to drill a relief well that will intercept the one that failed and seal it permanently.

Other incidents that prompted the meeting Thursday:

On Nov. 16, three Grand Isle  Shipyard workers died and several others were injured in an explosion and fire 20 miles off the Louisiana coast while they were refurbishing a production platform owned by Houston-based Black Elk Energy.

On Feb. 4, workers aboard the Ensco 87 jack-up rig activated its blowout preventer after detecting an uncontrolled flow called a kick. No hydrocarbons escaped from the Apache Corp. well, but subsequent tests showed natural gas had migrated from the bottom of the 8,300-foot well to a shallower sand formation 1,100 feet below the seabed.

On July 8, five workers evacuated an inactive, 40-year-old production platform owned by Houston-based Talos Energy when gas condensate began escaping from a well during operations to plug and abandon it.