Trio of Texas universities win bid to launch offshore safety center

Three Texas universities will launch a new safety institute designed to help offshore drilling regulators keep pace with rapidly evolving technology for extracting oil and gas from the sea floor, Interior Department officials announced Thursday.

The University of Houston, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas will start up the new Ocean Energy Safety Institute using $5 million in seed money from the federal government. Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station’s Mary Kay O’Connor Process Safety Center will manage the institute over five years, under its contract with the government.

The institute was the brainchild of government regulators and industry scientists who huddled in a Houston command center strategizing ways to rein in BP’s runaway Macondo well after it blew out in 2010 — and wanted to keep that information sharing going long after the disaster was over. The resulting Texas-based program is expected to help guide the government’s oversight as the oil industry rushes to tap the Arctic frontier, deep-water terrain far from the coastline and challenging high-pressure reservoirs.

Related story: Support grows for more collaboration on offshore safety

The new center “will be a very good place for us to interact with industry and academia on emerging technologies,” said Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement that oversees offshore drilling. “It will really focus many of our R&D interests.”

Ramanan Krishnamoorti, chief energy officer for the University of Houston, said the institute will ensure both industry and regulators have reliable, unbiased information about critical safety issues.

It will be a “unique, collaborative relationship,” Krishnamoorti said. “We will end up being the liaison between industry and the regulators.”

M. Sam Mannan, a chemical engineering professor at Texas A&M, noted the breadth of the institute, describing it as a “major undertaking of national importance that will impact (offshore) safety for years to come.”

While a major goal of the center is coordinating research and synthesizing data on offshore drilling equipment and techniques, it also will train safety bureau employees to help ensure they are current on state-of-the-art technology. The center also will be tasked with developing an international equipment failure reporting system and a database of critical device failures tied to well control, which could help pinpoint patterns and reliability problems.

The center won’t focus exclusively on drilling or production, and research will include work on environmental protection, containing blowouts and responding to oil spills.

One of the institute’s major functions will be helping the safety bureau identify the “best available and safest technologies” for operating offshore — a requirement that is embedded in federal law but left to regulators to specifically define. Environmentalists and some investigators who probed the Deepwater Horizon disaster said the government has shirked this responsibility.

In a report last week, the National Academy of Sciences said the center is critical to helping the government reach outside its ranks for insight on the best technology for safeguarding coastal oil activities but insisted it will need more money and a much bigger size to “address fully the challenges posed offshore.”

The National Academy of Sciences recommended the new institute be broadened to a federal funded research and development center that could receive funding over a longer time frame — something Salerno said he is exploring.

With its Gulf Coast location, the center will be able to tap into some of the oil and gas industry’s brightest minds, the academy said. That follows similar models, such as NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory, which is located in Pasadena, Calif.

The Texas A&M-led bid for the $5 million contract had competition from at least one other Gulf Coast school in Louisiana. But government officials said they could not yet provide details on the number or name of the entities that vied for the contract.

By spanning three separate universities, the center can take advantage of unique expertise at each institution, Mannan said.

“The three partner universities represent a unique combination of capabilities and resources needed to address the needs for the institute,” Mannan said.

The University of Houston’s chief assets in the partnership include its proximity to the Gulf Coast and its one-of-a-kind subsea engineering program. Krishnamoorti noted that UH’s National Center for Airbone Laser Mapping, an imaging center, will be useful in examining new ways to continuously monitor offshore pipelines and facilities for leaks.

While the new institute is able to get to work right away, Mannan acknowledged it would take some time to get up to full speed. He said the institute would call a summit for all potential stakeholders within a matter of weeks to better define the scope of its work and its priorities.

Some major questions about the institute are still unanswered. For instance, it is unclear how many people will ultimately be employed by the initiative. Mannan said staffing decisions will be guided by what stakeholders say in the early meetings.

“Clearly we want to hire some people who will be full time in the institute, but we are still planning in conjunction with the Department of Interior and BSEE,” he said. “We’d like to get (a better sense of) what is it that the staekholders would like us to address. If they would like us to address larger projects and bigger projects, than staffing would increase.”

But, he added, “we’re not going to get staff just to have staff.”

Three safety bureau employees based in Herndon, Va., also will be working with the institute, Salerno said.

The new program will not have any role regulating the industry. It dovetails with other efforts launched since the 2010 oil spill, including a Center for Offshore safety created by the American Petroleum Institute to foster best practices for the industry.

After Deepwater Horizon, investigators made clear that “we need to do things in a smarter manner than we have before,” said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas. “It’s important we have a strong relationship with government, industry and the scientific community.”

Here are specific objectives for the new Ocean Energy Safety Institute, as described by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement:

  • Develop a program of research, technical assistance, and education that serves as a center of expertise in offshore oil and gas exploration, development, and production technology, including technology specific to deepwater and Arctic exploration and development;
  • Provide recommendations and technical assistance to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) related to emerging technologies and the determination of BAST, and environmentally sound oil and gas development practices on the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS);
  • Provide recommendations and technical assistance related to geological and geophysical sciences relevant to understanding the technical challenges of exploration and development, such as reservoir characteristics, geohazards, and worst case discharge analyses;
  • Develop and maintain a domestic and international equipment failure reporting system and database of critical equipment failures related to control of the well that will allow the Institute to identify reliability issues and industry trends. This system should engage both the user and manufacturer of the equipment;
  • Engage employees of the Federal agencies to participate in research and training to remain current on state-of-the-art technology associated with offshore oil and gas development;
  • Promote collaboration among Federal agencies, industry, standards organizations, academia, and the National Academy of Sciences; and
  • Provide BSEE with reports on all OESI activities on a quarterly basis and at an annual in-person meeting.