Five years after Gulf disaster, feds ready new well control and blowout preventer mandates

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is poised to detail new requirements for controlling offshore wells, nearly five years after the Gulf of Mexico oil spill vividly illustrated the damage that can be unleashed when they are not kept in check.

While the oil industry may bristle at some of the proposed mandates, the long shadow cast by the Deepwater Horizon disaster likely will force officials to temper their criticism.

There were signs of that approach Thursday, as the leaders of three major industry trade groups touted the safety improvements the sector has voluntarily made since the spill, with at least one going so far as to endorse more regulation that helps keep oil companies and drilling contractors at the top of their game.

“We’re hopeful that it will be . . . a very collaborative effort, that we can work together to really improve safety,” said Jack Gerard, head of the American Petroleum Institute, adding that the industry’s goal is “zero accidents and zero incidents.” “Anything that gets us closer to that achievement we welcome with open arms and we look forward to working with regulators on.”

The measure expected to be formally unveiled by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement later this month aims to boost the reliability of blowout preventers, which are generally the last line of defense in preventing gas and oil from surging uncontrolled out of a well. It also is set to propose new requirements for ensuring oil companies stay within even slim drilling margins — the difference between the hydrostatic pore pressure exerted by oil, gas and other fluids in the underground formation and the amount of force it can withstand before cracking open.

“We welcome BSEE regulation and we welcome what we call enabling regulation . . . that enables our industry to work more safely and to work more cleanly,” said Stephen Colville, president of the International Association of Drilling Contractors. “We are really looking for regulation that is practical and practicable — things that really do address the situations we’re facing and that can be technically and economically implemented.”

The rule itself is expected to incorporate a suite of new and updated industry standards, including some aimed at better maintenance and testing of blowout preventers.

Those hulking devices contain valves, or rams, which can be used to block the flow of fluid from a well. During an emergency, shearing and sealing rams in the equipment 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 in 2010 concluded that a powerful rush of oil and gas caused drill pipe to buckle and shift, ultimately preventing the shearing rams on the device from cutting the pipe and sealing the hole.

Read more: Blowout preventer failed because of off-center drill pipe

In light of the shortcomings, several government investigations into the disaster called for additional requirements on blowout preventers and well control.

In response, the coming safety bureau rule is expected to propose requiring BOPs to be able to shear through any drill pipe, joints and debris in their way. Some technologies to boost shearing capability are being tested and others have been rolled out since 2010. But with more advancements needed, regulators are considering giving industry five to 10 years to comply with that new performance requirement.

The agency appears likely to propose mandates for centering drill pipe whenever those shearing blades are triggered — upping the odds the rams will be able to cut through.

And regulators are set to require oil companies use two shear rams in subsea blowout preventers, with the redundancy viewed as boosting the likelihood that a drill string can be sheared. Although an API standard gives oil companies working offshore the chance to opt out of a double shear ram requirement for rigs that are moored, regulators are not likely to offer the same exception.

The safety bureau also is expected to lay out new requirements for third-party verification of blowout preventers that would be put to work in high-pressure, high-temperature wells — forbidding, frontier terrain that requires new materials and new capabilities.

Going beyond blowout preventers, Interior officials have said the rule will set out new requirements for oil companies to monitor and control wells.

Regulators want oil companies to hand over more information about the maximum effective density of the drilling fluids inside wells, which exert pressure against the formation and help keep hydrocarbons at bay. And the safety bureau is poised to tighten its requirements for oil companies to stay within a safe drilling margin, carefully managing drilling fluids to keep oil and gas within the formation while not rupturing it altogether.

Interior officials also have signaled their intention to require companies drilling in deep water to be able to monitor operations in real time from on land — another change that could require years to phase in.

A major question is the amount of lead time industry will be given to comply with the new mandates. Because the rule is set to incorporate industry standards, the phase-in time for most proposed requirements could be shorter.

Read more: Companies won’t have to comply overnight

API’s Gerard stressed Thursday that API has published more than 100 new and revised standards for well design, blowout preventers, worker safety and other elements of exploration and production since 2010.

“We’re not waiting around for regulators; we’re leading that way with industry standards,” he said. “There’s been a lot of thought by the best minds in the world and we’re just hopeful the regulators recognize all that so it’s a positive outcome, a positive collaborative effort.”