Lawmakers press feds for info on blowout preventer mandates

A dozen lawmakers are pressing the Obama administration to outline its plans for tightening standards on emergency equipment used to safeguard offshore oil wells.

The group of House Republicans, led by Pete Olson of Texas, wants to make sure that federal regulators get input from industry as they prepare potentially “sweeping new rules” governing blowout preventers used offshore.

“While improving offshore safety is our mutual goal,” the lawmakers said, “we are somewhat concerned that regulators are failing to provide clarity for rig operators, inching toward substantial rules affecting that very same safety equipment that industry is voluntarily upgrading.”

The group highlighted its  concerns in a July 12 letter to James Watson, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates offshore energy development.

New standards have been looming for blowout preventers since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, which revealed shortcomings in the equipment used as a last resort against runaway wells.

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.

In response, the three main blowout preventer manufacturers began developing and selling newly robust shearing rams, some with different blade shapes and more powerful hydraulic force to slam them shut.

Those are exactly the kind of upgrades that could be mandated in new federal performance standards for BOPs. Regulators at the safety bureau have telegraphed they may require companies to use a second set of shearing rams, potentially boosting the odds of successfully cutting drill pipe, as well as additional sensors for tracking the precise location of the blades.

During an Interior Department forum on blowout preventers last year, former Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said under the forthcoming 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.

Regulators also have vowed to give the oil industry plenty of time to adapt, especially given the prospect that requirements could cause speed the retirement of some older industry equipment.  For instance, a mandate for a second set of shear rams could grow the size of blowout preventers beyond the available space in some rig cellars at shallow-water operations.

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

Watson is leaving in September to join ABS, and it is unclear how his departure — along with openings in other top Interior Department posts — could shift the timeline for unveiling a new rule proposal. But the safety bureau has published its intent to formally propose the mandates before the end of the year.

The lawmakers who wrote Watson asked him to clarify the timing of the new BOP regulations as well as the expected scope and the agency’s plans for getting feedback from stakeholders.

“Is the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement currently considering new technological standards that could require retirement of entire existing BOPs?” they questioned.

The group of lawmakers — all members of the House Energy and Commerce or Natural Resources committees — included Texans Ralph Hall and Michael Burgess, in addition to Olson.

July 13 letter from 12 lawmakers to James Watson on blowout preventers.