How to play it safe offshore: A primer on the feds’ new rules

The Obama administration today announced two new rules to step up offshore drilling safety. The new mandates on well designs and equipment aim to prevent a repeat of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said more requirements are on the horizon, adding unease for energy companies who have pleaded with the Obama administration to swiftly and clearly explain new regulations that will govern the future of offshore drilling.

Here’s what you need to know about the regs:

  1. An offshore drilling safety rule, which goes into effect as soon as it is published under federal emergency rulemaking procedures, imposes requirements that the government laid out in a “notice to lessees” in June and other changes recommended in a May 27 report on safe offshore exploration.It includes a number of new requirements that govern everything from the design of wells to the blowout preventers and other barriers used to control them.The rule also dictates proper cementing and casing practices for wells — and other procedures critical to maintaining well control. It also requires third-party engineering experts to sign off on designs.  A full description of the rule is after the jump.
  2. A second rule, proposed last year  long before the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon, is designed to boost the safety of offshore drilling operations by requiring companies to implement comprehensive safety and environmental management systems. Because the workplace safety rule effectively makes mandatory one of the American Petroleum Institute’s recommended practices, it dovetails with what many companies are already doing, industry officials said.

The new drilling safety rule would:

  • Require professional engineers to certify that well casing and cementing programs are appropriate for the project.
  • Mandate two independent barriers across each flow path — certified by professional engineers — whenever well completion activities are under way.
  • Mandate that offshore wells comply with a currently voluntary API standard for isolating potential flow zones during well construction.
  • Require Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement officials to sign off any plan to replace a heavier drilling fluid with a lighter fluid.
  • Insist on better deep-water well control training for rig personnel.
  • Force companies to submit full drawings and other documentation for all well-control systems.
  • Require an independent third party to verify that the blind shear rams on blowout preventers are capable of cutting any drill pipe based on anticipated pressures.
  • Beef up the number of ways that remotely operated vehicles can activate blowout preventers.
  • Require floating drilling rigs to keep onboard a crew trained in operating remote vehicles at all times.
  • Set minimum standards for rig workers who are authorized to operate blowout preventers.
  • Mandate new testing of the blowout preventers and their activation systems, including initial tests of the equipment on the sea floor.