Interior Plans Proposal in September To Tighten Standards for Blowout Preventers

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Key Development: Interior Department plans to propose a rule in September to tighten standards and procedures for blowout preventers on drilling rigs.

Potential Impact: Industry is asked to provide guidance to Interior for a new rulemaking.

Next Steps: Interior plans to issue a proposed rule by September.

By Lynn Garner  

The Interior Department plans to issue a proposed rule in September to tighten standards and procedures for blowout preventers used in deepwater oil and gas drilling operations, officials said May 22.

“We need to make sure the lessons of Deepwater Horizon and the Macondo oil spill are not forgotten,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in his opening remarks at a workshop to solicit views from the energy industry on next-generation blowout preventers and control systems.

The rulemaking is the latest of several actions by Interior over the past two years following the April 20, 2010, drilling rig explosion and BP well blowout that claimed 11 lives and spilled 5 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days.

The failure of Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer on BP's Macondo well, and the inability of the companies to know the condition of the fail-safe device or the flow rate of escaping hydrocarbons, were prime contributors to the nation's worst oil spill, according to government investigations.

The blowout preventer is a five-story system of valves that sits on the sea bottom and is supposed to prevent a catastrophic well blowout by activating shearing rams that slice through the drill pipe and seal off the wellbore. Damaged pipe in the wellbore prevented the shearing rams from performing as expected on the Macondo well, investigators found.

Salazar said that while the industry has made improvements with better instrumentation, improved data collection, and the use of double shearing rams for most deepwater exploration, the department still feels a comprehensive set of requirements is needed.

Expedited Rulemaking Sought.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes said the department had thought initially about a longer rulemaking process taking many months but decided the situation called for an expedited approach.

“We have a good idea of where we want to go” with the blowout preventer,” Hayes said.

Hayes said new designs must meet four main criteria.

First, the blowout preventer must be able to cut through any obstacle in the wellbore and completely seal off the well. Second, better maintenance programs will be required.

Third, a better system of sensors on the device will be required so drilling rig operators know exactly what is happening “at the bottom of the sea,” he said.

Fourth, rig crews will need better training so they will be capable of handling any emergency.

Salazar said there will be “dress rehearsals” in the coming months to test the effectiveness of oil spill response programs put in place after the BP spill.

Two Rules to be Updated.

James Watson, director of Interior's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said the agency also plans to update later this year the drilling safety rule and the workplace safety rule that were adopted after the Macondo blowout.

Those two rules were issued under emergency rulemaking processes and will be revised following industry comments, an agency official said.

One of the requirements adopted after the spill is third-party verification that the so-called blind shear rams on blowout preventers actually work.

Watson said his agency also plans to launch a separate rulemaking dealing with the safety of offshore production operations once a well has been drilled.

Thomas Hunter, chairman of the Ocean Energy Safety Advisory Committee and a lead scientific investigator for the government, said officials spent “countless hours” attempting to understand what went wrong with the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer. “It was all guess work,” he recalled.

Frank Gallander, a Chevron executive leading a standards panel for the American Petroleum Institute, said companies are prepared to make substantial changes in current requirements.

Chuck Chauviere, a drilling manager for GE Oil and Gas, said the industry will be challenged to solve the technical problems associated with major spill scenarios in the time envisioned by the new rule.

By Lynn Garner