Government weighs new standards for blowout preventers

The federal government is considering whether it should boost requirements for emergency drilling equipment after an investigation revealed a possible design flaw in the device that failed to stop last year’s oil spill.

Government regulators have already imposed new mandates for third-party certification and safety evaluations of the equipment known as blowout preventers, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar noted today. But higher standards also could be on the way, he said.

We “will also be looking to develop some additional improvements with respect to BOPs,” Salazar told reporters on a conference call. “We are looking at what else might be needed.”

Salazar added that the changes could include mandates for more instrumentation and a second set of blind shear rams capable of cutting through drill pipes and sealing well holes.

A four-month analysis of the 60-foot-tall, 300-ton blowout preventer used at BP’s failed Macondo well concluded that neither human nor mechanical error was to blame for its failure to stop gushing oil and gas at the site last year. Instead, a government-contracted forensic analysis firm said the force of the oil and gas surging out of the well caused drill pipe in the blowout preventer to buckle and be pushed askew, preventing the device’s sharp rams from slashing through the pipe, sealing the well hole and trapping oil underground.

In the wake of that report, Obama administration officials stressed that they were already considering improvements to BOPs as part of a formal rulemaking process.

David Hayes, the deputy secretary of Interior, said that the government will consult with engineers, drilling experts and academics on its new Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee on any new BOP standards before proposing new rules later this year. That panel will hold its first public meeting on April 18.

“We will be working with the new Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee to get their input on proposed new rules,” Hayes said. “We are looking in all likelihood to move out with an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking in the coming months that will request information from all sources as to what sorts of upgrades are appropriate for blowout preventers and also other equipment.”