DOI proposes new offshore BOP, well-control regulations

The US Department of the Interior proposed offshore oil and gas well-control regulations with more stringent design requirements and operational procedures for blowout preventers (BOPs) and blowout prevention technologies.

The proposed rule also includes reforms in well design, well control, casing, cementing, real-time well monitoring, and subsea containment. Comments will be accepted for 60 days starting Apr. 15, when the proposal appears in the Federal Register.

The measures would implement recommendations in studies following the Apr. 20, 2010, Macondo deepwater well blowout and explosion that killed 11 people aboard the Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible drilling rig atop it. Ruptures of connecting lines as the rig sank triggered a more than 5 million gal leak into the Gulf of Mexico that took 87 days to cap and contain.

“Both industry and government have taken important strides to better protect human lives and the environment from oil spills,” US Interior Sec. Sally Jewell said Apr. 13 as she announced the proposed regulations. “These proposed measures are designed to further build on critical lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy and to ensure that offshore operations are safe.”

She said DOI’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement analyzed results of various investigations and reports on the accident, including nearly 370 specific recommendations, and conducted extensive outreach for further enhancements from stakeholder input, academia, and industry best practices, standards, and specifications.

The well’s BOP was a significant failure point in the Macondo well incident, but several other barriers also failed, DOI said. Consequently, BSEE worked with a wide array of stakeholders to comprehensively address well control measures and equipment, it indicated.

Sought best ideas

“We worked to collect the best ideas on the prevention of well-control incidents and blowouts to develop this proposed rule—including knowledge and skillsets from industry and equipment managers,” said Janice Schneider, assistant US Interior Secretary for land and minerals management. “This rule proposes both prescriptive and performance-based standards that are based on this extensive engagement and analysis.”

BSEE brought together federal policymakers, industry, academia, and others at a May 2012 offshore energy forum to discuss additional steps the Bureau and the industry could take to continue to improve the reliability and safety of blowout preventers. The agency also received comments and specific recommendations from industry groups, operators, equipment manufacturers, and environmental organizations.

“In addition to more stringent design requirements, the proposed rule requires improved controls of all repair and maintenance activities through the lifecycle of the blowout preventer and other well control equipment,” BSEE Director Brian Salerno said.

“It would provide verification of the performance of equipment designs through third-party verification, enhanced oversight of operations through real-time monitoring viewed onshore, and require operators to, during operations, utilize recognized engineering best standards that reduce risk,” he noted.

Updated BOP standard

Officials from oil and gas associations said they were studying the proposed regulations. “Improved standards for [BOPs] are one of the many ways industry has led the charge to make offshore operations even safer,” American Petroleum Institute Upstream Group Director Erik Milito said.

API updated and strengthened its industry standard for BOPs, Standard 53, in 2012 to prioritize consistent procedures, preventive maintenance, inspections, and testing, Milito noted.

National Ocean Industries Association Pres. Randall B. Luthi, who oversaw federal offshore oil and gas activity as US Minerals Management Service director from July 2007 through January 2009, said NOIA and its members “are currently reviewing the proposed rule, line by line and word by word.

“We are keenly interested in the proposed design and function changes for [BOPs], requirements for dual shear rams, real-time monitoring, testing schedules for exploration, workover, and decommissioning operations, and the hot stab requirements,” he said.

“We are concerned that reasonable and necessary time is allowed for proposed design and manufacturing modifications, and that third party certifications are a useful tool for verifying safety measures and not merely an increase in a bureaucratic process,” Luthi said.

Lori LeBlanc, the Louisiana Midcontinent Oil & Gas Association’s offshore director, said the Baton Rouge organization and its members also are reviewing the proposed regulations. “Considering the recent drop in oil prices and the economic downturn, we want to ensure this rule is sensible and does not further hinder offshore energy development,” LeBlanc said.

“The offshore oil and gas companies have made and will continue to make safety and environmental protection their highest priority,” LeBlanc said. “The proposed well control rule…needs to take into consideration the economic factors resulting from such a rule that can potentially cripple the industry.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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