Blowout preventer regulation likely

05 23, 2012 by The Advocate

A new federal regulatory proposal for the blowout preventer technology that failed during the 2010 BP oil leak is expected by September, U.S. Interior Department officials said Tuesday.

U.S. Interior Deputy Secretary David Hayes said the federal government already has a “good idea” what the regulations would focus on as he spoke during a “next generation blowout preventer” forum.

“BOPs need to be able to cut off whatever is in their way and completely seal off the well,” Hayes said.

The rules also must look at better maintenance, employee training and sensors “to tell us what is going on at the bottom of the sea,” he said.

In 2010, the BP blowout preventer built by Cameron International Corp. was supposed to cut off the oil flow from the wellhead when problems arose, but the device failed. The Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 men and resulted in a three-month discharge of 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.

U.S. Interior Department Secretary Ken Salazar said much progress has been made since then through federal oversight and corporations improving their own standards. But he added that “we have a long ways still to go.”

“What we do with this rule will basically set the standard for the rest of the world,” Salazar said, arguing that the technological changes for offshore drilling in the U.S. also will end up extending to drilling near Africa and other parts of the world.

Since the BP disaster, the United Kingdom-based corporation has added a second set of sheer rams to its blowout preventers to cut off the oil flow if the first set fails. Salazar questioned whether all deepwater drilling operations need that extra security.

“We need to make sure the lessons of the Deepwater Horizon and Macondo are not forgotten,” he said.

But Salazar also expressed optimism in deepwater drilling and touted the efforts of President Barack Obama that are much derided by Republicans and other opponents. “The Gulf of Mexico is back and producing oil and gas and exploring for oil and gas in a very robust way,” he said.

Despite a six-month “pause” with the controversial drilling moratorium after the tragedy, Salazar said, deepwater drilling rig activity is greater now than in 2009 and another big Gulf lease sale is in June with 38 million acres available.

As for moving forward with new rules, Jim Watson, director of the department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, said safety is needed at all levels “from the bottom of that well to the top of the derrick.”

“We can’t just have safety when the inspector is there,” Watson said. “It can’t just be snapshot safety.”

In that vein, he said, the department also is moving forward with new “safety management systems” rules.

Almost 20 years has passed since standards were updated regulating, essentially, what is going on at the bottom of the sea during oil production, Watson said, noting that technology has advanced a lot during that period.