Feds lay out plans for new blowout preventer mandates

Obama administration officials today outlined their plans for new regulations designed to boost the reliability and power of emergency equipment used as a last line of defense against surging oil and gas at offshore wells.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the rule, set to be proposed by September, aims to respond to vulnerabilities exposed by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, when the five-story blowout preventer at BP’s doomed Macondo well failed to block a lethal surge of explosive oil and gas.

The foundation of the coming rule was built in the 87 days after the well blew out, when engineers struggled to stop crude gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, Salazar said.

“That was one of the areas of intense focus during those days of the Gulf oil spill, when we were trying to figure out for so long what was happening with respect to the BOP,” Salazar said at an Interior Department forum on blowout preventers meant to help regulators developing the new mandates.

Salazar noted that one question that emerged during the oil spill response was whether the devices should be beefed up with a second set of shear rams to increase the odds of the BOP successfully slicing through drill pipe and debris to seal off a well. Another question, Salazar said, was whether there could be more “sensors and gauges” on the devices.

Blowout preventers are massive sets of valves that sit on top of the wellhead. During an emergency, shearing and sealing rams in the devices can be activated to cut drill pipe and seal the well hole.

But a forensic investigation of the BOP unearthed from the Macondo site determined the device was unable to slash through a piece of off-center drill pipe, seal the well hole and trap oil and gas underground. Surging oil and gas had caused that pipe to buckle and shift outside of the space where those shearing rams could slice through obstacles.

The investigations of the BOP at the Macondo well revealed “some serious issues” that are not unique to Macondo, Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said.

Hayes said the Interior Department is forging ahead with a rule that would include at least four main components:

  • “BOPs need to be able to cut whatever is in their way and completely seal off the well.”
  • “We need better maintenance for BOPs, like what you would expect of a jet engine or any other very sophisticated mechanical device upon which lives depend.”
  • “BOPs need better sensors to tell us what is happening at the bottom of the sea.”
  • “Everyone working with BOPs should be thoroughly and properly trained to handle any contingency.

The drive for more data from the devices was borne out of the response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Tom Hunter, the chairman of the Interior Department’s Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee, said in the days after the blowout of the Macondo well that it was frustrating not to be able to learn basic information about the status of the well and the blowout preventer.

He said unanswered questions included what — if anything — was inside the wellbore, pressures inside the stack, whether all controls were hooked up and whether the device was stable.

“I can’t tell you how difficult, if not impossible, it was to find any of that out,” Hunter said.

“We spent countless hours trying to understand what was happening with this system and never had anything more than guesses,” Hunter added. “It was not a self-revealing system. It was very hard to understand, and the data we needed to do a response was not available.”

Hunter said the next generation of blowout preventers should be designed with transparency in mind. Ideally, workers should be able to quickly get temperature readings, flow information and other data from the blowout preventers working thousands of feet below the surface of the sea.

“It should be clear what is going on,” he said. “All the elements should be fully diagnosable, and all of the internals should be observable in some way.”

Roger McCarthy, a member of the National Academy of Engineering panel that probed the Deepwater Horizon disaster, said “the industry had plenty of warnings” that blowout preventers had problems shearing even under “benign conditions” before the 2010 oil spill.

A new blowout preventer rule should ensure the devices would at least have been able to halt the gushing oil and gas at Macondo, he said.

“We don’t want to fight the last war,” McCarthy said. “But let’s remember, we lost the last war. So, at a minimum, we should be able to anticipate with our current design recommendations and incorporate in them all the history we have paid so dearly for by not being prepared for the last disasters.”

A BOP has got to be powerful enough “to cut anything that’s in front of it when all hell is breaking loose,” McCarthy added. “And there is the tough part.”

Chuck Chauviere, general manager of drilling for GE Oil and Gas, said the industry is responding to the problems exposed by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, by unveiling powerful new rams that are capable of cutting pipe under many different conditions. For instance, GE is touting rams that can cut through tool joints.

“The industry responds to forensic information that is given to us,” Chauviere said. “We are improving what the capabilities of the equipment are.”

Chauviere and other industry representatives said BOP manufacturers need federal regulators to include specific design standards in any new rule. It is not enough to say the devices must be able to “cut and seal” wells.

“These design parameters are important to the industry, and we respond to them as they are given to us,” Chauviere said.

Diamond Offshore’s vice president of governmental and industry affairs, Moe Plaisance, pleaded for specific standards — and space for industry to meet them.

“Tell us what you want and let us figure out how we do it,” he said. “We want to be part of the solution.”

One possible requirement, referenced by Salazar, would be a mandate for a second set of blind shear rams to up the odds of successfully cutting through drill pipe (and avoiding thicker, harder-to-penetrate tool joints where pipes are connected). BP is already using a second set of blind shear rams on the blowout preventers it uses to guard wells in the Gulf of Mexico. And Shell Oil Co. has pledged to use two rams on BOPs for exploratory drilling it hopes to launch in the Arctic Chukchi and Beaufort seas this summer.

But some shallow-water drillers — where the BOPs are often carried on board jack-up rigs — have cautioned that adding an extra set of valves and rams could make the devices too tall for older vessels.

Regulators at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement are evaluating how — and whether — to require new real-time monitoring technologies that would help diagnose and detect kicks of gas at wells. They also are considering new requirements for the maintenance of the devices and the training of workers who will operate them in an emergency.