Industry takes the lead in improving emergency well control devices

Four years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster spotlighted shortcomings in the blowout preventers intended to safeguard offshore wells, government regulators are still drafting long-promised regulations meant to boost the reliability of those critical emergency devices.

But the oil industry isn’t waiting for the mandates, first promised just months after the April 2010 blowout of BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf.

Manufacturers are rolling out new blowout preventer designs that can withstand bone-crushing forces at the bottom of the sea and promise to contain crude blasting out of high-pressure reservoirs, as oil companies march into deeper, more treacherous offshore terrain.

At the same time, oil companies and drilling contractors are doubling up on the blowout preventers they put on newly built rigs and in some cases adding more components to older devices.

Other companies have created software meant to keep a closer watch on the equipment and alert workers to possible problems.

While the Macondo disaster drove some of those changes, many are geared toward meeting looming challenges of extreme pressures and temperatures as oil companies set their sights on prospects with pay zones located under miles of sea water and rock.

The challenges of those frontiers are a major focus of this week’s Offshore Technology Conference at NRG Park.

“The industry has already upped its game in this area, taking the lead in strengthening standards,” said Tommy Beaudreau, a former offshore energy regulator who now is chief of staff to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Beaudreau: Feds’ ‘robust regulatory agenda’ will boost Gulf safety

“Industry has taken some initiative around improving performance of blowout preventers, looking forward to some of these emerging prospects that carry opportunities but also safety challenges.”

The five-story-tall devices used on top of offshore wells are an array of valves and rams, meant to encircle drill pipe or slash right through it in an emergency. The blind shear rams in the devices can be activated in an emergency to cut drill pipe and seal off the well hole, trapping escaping oil and gas.

Reaction to disaster

A forensic investigation of the blowout preventer used on BP’s failed Macondo well in 2010 concluded that surging oil and gas caused drill pipe to buckle and shift, preventing the shearing rams from cutting the pipe and sealing the hole. The probe also raised questions about whether the hydraulic system that powered the device had the capacity to seal the well.

The disaster put a spotlight on the crucial but obscure equipment; even President Barack Obama mentioned the device and its possible shortcomings during a news conference weeks after oil began gushing into the Gulf.

The three main manufacturers of blowout prevents – National Oilwell Varco, GE and Cameron – responded with new blade designs and shearing operators meant to centralize drill pipe inside the cutting area and give the equipment more muscle to power through it.

National Oilwell Varco focused much of its attention on the efficiency of the blades, reducing the overall force needed to shear through drill pipes and debris so the devices could be more effective without increasing in size.

Spill prevention: National Oilwell Varco sees big business in blowout preventers

As companies work in deeper water and still-deeper reservoirs with much higher pressures, however, the size and strength of drill pipe has increased. That means blowout prevents must be able to overcome higher pressures at the wellhead and muscle through thicker pipe.

But there are limits on how much hydraulic fluid can be stashed with the devices to provide the necessary force – instantly, on demand – for slamming rams shut.

National Oilwell Varco’s solution is a “depth-compensated accumulator,” which takes advantage of water column pressure and mechanically boosts the hydraulic pressure to provide more force with fewer bottles of fluid.

Other design changes may be coming.

“We know we’re going to eventually reach the point where the brute force method of adding more accumulator bottles isn’t going to work,” said Bob Judge, director of product management at GE Oil & Gas.

New specs coming

Manufacturers have set their sites on building new designs capable of withstanding reservoir pressures of 20,000 pounds per square inch, 5,000 psi higher than the current capability.

GE has already built a 20,000 psi device for testing and development purposes.

And in March, Cameron said it had received an order from Freeport-McMoRan Oil & Gas to supply a 25,000 psi blowout preventer stack.

Cameron declined to speak about the development.

The American Petroleum Institute is writing new specifications governing the design and repair of blowout preventers.

At the same time, federal regulators are vetting new well control mandates.

Emergency response: Spill-containment system for Gulf nears completion

The rules, which could be proposed later this year, deal with complex issues that may go beyond blowout preventers, said Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

“It’s not just focused on a piece of equipment,” Salerno said in an interview on the sidelines of the Offshore Technology Conference.

“It’s everything that is associated with controlling a well,” he said.

Even without regulatory changes, manufacturers are taking advantage of new market opportunities as oil companies seek to reduce the down time of blowout preventers and keep a closer watch on the equipment.

GE just launched a maintenance software package, called SeaLytics, that helps operators anticipate and plan maintenance requirements in advance, reducing the number of times they must unexpectedly pull a blowout preventer out of the water because of a problem.

Software updates

BP is rolling out monitoring software that will allow employees around the world track the status and testing of the blowout prevents in real time.

Some drilling companies are installing two blowout preventers on new rigs, just to ensure an alternative is available when one is undergoing work.