Offshore drilling regulator vows new blowout preventer safety rules

05 02, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

In an effort to tighten regulations for blowout preventers, the safety mechanism of last resort for offshore drilling, the top U.S. oil and gas regulator announced he is holding an all-day public forum in Washington, D.C., on May 22 to find ways to improve the reliability of the device that failed so miserably when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded two years ago. James Watson, director of the Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, spoke for the first time before the annual Offshore Technology Conference in Houston Tuesday.

He praised the industry for developing a raft of new technologies to make drilling safer after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

He also said his revamped agency is sharpening its regulatory focus with four main efforts. First, he said BSEE is completing revisions to a drilling safety rule imposed on an emergency basis in October 2010 when the government decided to resume deepwater drilling for the first time since the April 2010 BP oil spill.

Second, he promised to finalize a workplace safety rule known as SEMS, one that hones regulations governing rig workers' authority to stop work on a project if they see something dangerous, and similar provisions. It also requires independent third-party safety audits on working rigs.

Third, Watson notified the industry that while the drilling safety rule contained a number of provisions for blowout preventers, a separate rule governing their design, testing and maintenance is necessary because of the way the massive stack of valves and pistons failed to shut in the BP well, as it had been designed to do, two years ago. He said the May 22 forum in Washington will be key.

"We are inviting experts from around the country to participate in panel discussions, and I am looking forward to an open and candid dialogue," he said.

Finally, Watson said revisions are long overdue for oil and gas production safety systems. That's safety for the massive fixed platforms and spider-web networks of oil-producing wells, not the exploratory wells that are in the drilling stage. Watson said those production safety systems haven't gone through a significant update since 1988, and he said issues his agency found on BP's Atlantis platform produced some of the proposed revisions.

A former BP contract worker on Atlantis sued BP in federal court in Houston claiming the company hadn't maintained proper documents on board the platform and hadn't gotten certified engineers to approve certain systems. BP denies any substantive violations occurred with the maintenance of records and said it got proper approvals from regulators when it used foreign engineers who weren't U.S. certified.

Atlantis seems to exemplify the need for tighter controls on production platforms, even if no evidence has emerged of any major violations there. Emails in the court record detail several incidents in which BP workers were baffled by self-activating valves, power failures and potential subsea leaks, none of which were reported to regulators. But BP said these were not significant enough incidents to require any reporting to the government. Testimony from Bryan Domangue of the government's Houma district office did not clearly show whether the regulators should have been aware of those issues or not.