Federal offshore chief calls for urgency in bolt failure inquiry

Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, touring the Offshore Technology Conference Tuesday. (PHOTO: BSEE)
Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, touring the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston in 2016. (PHOTO: BSEE)

The federal government’s top offshore drilling regulator said Monday that regulators and the oil and gas industry need to figure out why bolts are failing on undersea equipment used in offshore drilling “sooner rather than later.”

“We need to have the root cause before we dictate a solution,” Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said at a news conference Monday. “It’s in nobody’s interest to have a catastrophic failure.”

RELATED: Fears of failing bolts on Gulf rigs continue to worry experts

The government urgency on a problem that stretches back a decade is a result of greater awareness about the growing frequency of broken bolts that hold together critical equipment like blowout preventers.

General Electric Oil & Gas, one of three primary suppliers, issued a global recall after its bolts on a piece of undersea equipment in the Gulf of Mexico failed in 2012, releasing more than 400 barrels of drilling fluid into the water.

That incident was reported to the government but many more were not, federal officials say, masking the extent of the problem. That will change with new rules put into place by the safety bureau this year that require the reporting of equipment failure regardless of whether pollution or worker injury occurred.

RELATED: Investigation tracks failure of subsea bolts

The offshore drilling industry had discussed possibly replacing all the bolts in question in the Gulf over a period of years. But those discussions have ended pending a better understanding of the problem, Salerno said.

“There was some back and forth, but the thinking has evolved on this,” he said.

Within the bureau, which was created after BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, the belief is that before any action is taken engineers must first figure out what is causing the bolts to fail. Possibilities include flaws in the fabrication process or simple overtightening of bolts during installation in the field.

Bureau officials have drawn in scientists from government agencies including the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to sit on a task force. On Monday, the bureau staged a forum in Washington with speakers from inside and outside the agency, to present what they know so far.

Already, those discussions have opened the possibility that the bolt failures on undersea oil and gas equipment might extend to facilities on land.

“There’s some indications that the problem may manifest itself in other industries,” Salerno said.  “Pipelines for instance onshore potentially could be affected if the issues are related to torquing or stress corrosion, things like that.”

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