New blowout preventer mandates coming — but companies won’t have to comply overnight

Federal regulators are on track to propose new standards for boosting the reliability and performance of emergency devices safeguarding offshore wells later this year — but that doesn’t mean the industry will have to comply overnight.

Obama administration officials at the Offshore Technology Conference have signaled they are prepared to give companies plenty of lead-in time to innovate new blowout preventers to meet the forthcoming requirements, manufacture the devices and install them on new and aging drilling vessels.

“We will have to have a phase-in of new requirements, because it will take time for industry to gear up,” said James Watson, the director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. “It takes time for industry to be able to gear up before the integration of new technology, because it’s got to be manufactured.”

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The Deepwater Horizon disaster revealed shortcomings in the blowout preventers used as a last resort against runaway wells and spurred regulators to begin developing mandates that would boost the performance of those emergency devices.

During an emergency, shearing and sealing rams in the devices can be activated to cut drill pipe and block off the well hole. But a forensic investigation of the blowout preventer used at BP’s failed Macondo well concluded that a powerful rush of oil and gas caused drill pipe to buckle and shift, ultimately preventing powerful shearing rams on the device from cutting the pipe and sealing the hole.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is likely to require more robust maintenance of blowout preventers, stronger training for the people operating them and better sensors to track their performance deep underwater.

Watson underscored that the final rule probably also will include specific performance standards for the devices, rather than solely prescriptive requirements that could serve to lock in new technology at the expense of future innovation. For instance, the measure could require blowout preventers be capable of cutting through debris and the thick oil joints where pieces of drill pipe connect — rather than insisting on specific BOP designs that may achieve those goals.

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The rule also may reference a new American Petroleum Institute standard for the devices.

“There will have to be some prescriptive (components), largely referencing the API standard that now exists,” Watson said. “My desire is that there be some performance requirements, as opposed to specific, got-to-do prescriptive things.”

The safety bureau is set to issue a proposed blowout preventer rule by the end of this year, after holding a forum at the Interior Department last year to solicit input from the oil industry and other stakeholders. A final rule wouldn’t come out until next year, at the earliest, after the agency sifts through public comments and makes any changes to the measure in response.

Watson said industry has already anticipated many of the likely changes. After Macondo, the three main blowout preventer manufacturers rolled out — or announced plans to offer — newly robust shearing rams, some with different blade shapes and more powerful hydraulic force to slam them shut.

“We’ve been measuring reliability since the Macondo incident as we’ve done more and more testing of the BOPs that are in the field now,” Wat son said. ” There’s a certain need, I think, to increase the reliability of components.”

While some drilling contractors now are using BOPs with multiple shearing rams, to up the odds of cutting through pipe and debris, that’s not enough, Watson suggested. Increasing redundancy should not be a replacement for improving the performance of rams, he said.

“There is a lot of redundancy in these BOPs now, but it doesn’t give you comfort, even now, when you rely on redundancy,” Watson said. “You want to rely on the overall machines working as designed anytime.”

Some companies are reporting a one- to two-year backlog on BOPs on order — and those devices are being made before the new mandates are clear. But Watson noted that companies have “anticipated a lot,” and “we’re taking that into consideration as we probably set up some kind of schedule for implementation.”

Companies working offshore may face an absolute deadline for retiring old blowout preventers that don’t meet any new performance and prescriptive standards, with a long phase-in time.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes last year said under the new rule, BOPs will have to be able to cut whatever is in their way, be better maintained and contain sensors to reveal what is happening in the devices.