The push for uniformity

Stephen Whitfield

September 1, 2014

Stephen Whitfield examines well control standards in the US and Europe.

Since the Macondo blowout devastated the Gulf of Mexico in the spring of 2010, governments and industry organizations around the world have recognized the need to prevent potential blowouts through better well control standards. While there is still no universally-accepted regulation for everyone to follow, organizations around the world are getting closer to that goal.

Blowout preventers are part of a comprehensive well control policy that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is currently crafting. Photo from GE Oil and Gas.

Well control in the US

The approaches from both industry and government with regards to well control have been slightly different.

The American Petroleum Institute held a forum on offshore well control equipment in New Orleans this past January, and out of that forum came a new standard for subsea capping stacks aimed at improving their ability to control a potential spill.

This new standard, otherwise known as RP 17W, addresses both new capping stacks and existing ones, suggesting that they should “use field proven and qualified equipment components where possible” and “provide a means for circulating trapped gas from below the top barrier component.”

The API also recommended that the stacks themselves have the ability to check pressure below a wellbore’s mechanical closure device. In the case of a blowout, they should be able to inject both hydrate inhibitors and chemical dispersants into and have some outlet for diverting the flow of fluids from the main bore.

Of course, the API standard is only a recommendation, not a binding law. In governmental channels, the push for uniform well control policy has continued at a steady pace.

In 2012, the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), an agency of the Department of the Interior, hosted a forum in which federal officials, industry leaders, and top names in academia talked about the steps they could take to improve blowout preventer safety – the failure of the Deepwater Horizon’s BOP was cited as the main cause of the Macondo incident.

Since then, the BSEE has been working on a comprehensive well-control bill, but there is no timetable for when this bill will begin moving through the necessary legislative channels.

David Smith, the head of BSEE Public Affairs, acknowledged that the demand for such a policy has been noticeable.

“While [the BOP] was a point of failure in the Deepwater Horizon tragedy,” Smith said to OE, “a number of barriers failed as well and it was the combination of failures that ultimately resulted in the loss of well control and the explosion. Therefore, as BSEE undertook this rulemaking, we diligently worked to ensure it would address well control in a more comprehensive way.”

Europe

In March 2009, a year before Macondo, the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (OGP) held a drilling standards workshop.

The organization recognized a few major concerns within the industry with regards to well control equipment – namely, that there were very few internationally recognized standards to follow.

In a presentation from that workshop, OGP acknowledged four API standards – RP 53, RP 59, RP 64, and RP 16Q as “the only practical documents available to … install, test, and use well control equipment.”

That presentation cited the need for a set of international standards because of the increasing number of drilling contractors from Europe and Asia that do not follow API standards.

Five years later, there is still no set of internationally recognized standards on well control, but there are a host of organizations around the world working to increase awareness of proper well control procedures in the wake of Macondo.

Last year, the European Union announced its Directive on the Safety of Offshore Oil and Gas Operations as a direct response to Deepwater Horizon and other incidents. The directive sought to address what it called “the existing divergent and fragmented regulatory framework applying to the safety of offshore oil and gas operations” between its member states.

The EU directive touched on a wide range of issues, including response and liability in the case of a blowout and, as the name would suggest, preventative measures. Most importantly, it called for independent, expert regulators to assess the capacity of wells in each of its countries with well operations.Under the directive, EU countries that are not landlocked have until June 2015 to implement the directive into law.

By 2016, the European Commission will report on the progress of the implementation of this directive to both the European Parliament and the European Council.

International organizations

Elsewhere, other organizations are leading the way in researching the possibility of a uniform standard and educating others about well control.

The International Regulators’ Forum (IRF) has already officially supported the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) standards system. However, ISO standards are far from a be-all, end-all, and the IRF’s Offshore Safety Conference in Perth last fall featured several proposals on potential safety and environmental regulations.

One in particular, a joint presentation from the Netherlands Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Association and the country’s State Supervision of Mines, dealt with possible ways to deal with blowouts.

The presentation, titled “Emergency Response in Case of a Blowout in Shallow Waters,” highlighted the communication between government and industry in the Netherlands as a key.

The Norwegian headquarted DNV GL has done plenty of work on blowouts recently – in 2012 and 2013, the organization evaluated the possibility of further automation of BOP systems with the hopes of developing a new guideline. While that effort did not ultimately lead to anything, DNV continued its work, shifting focus to wellhead fatigue in a new joint industry project (JIP)announced in early July.

The JIP, which features contributions from companies like BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Marathon, and Shell, will provide funding to various studies that asses current practices for assessing fatigue. These studies are expected to be completed in the first half of 2015.

On another note, the British-based International Well Control Forum (IWCF) has been at the forefront of the movement for stronger, consistent well control standards, and in the last couple of weeks the organization has launched two initiatives.

First, the IWCF started an online awareness course aimed at educating those currently working in the industry and those planning to enter the industry. The program details what to expect in the lifecycle of a well, as well as potential hazards to look out for and industry methods for dealing with blowouts.

The other initiative, announced in early August, aims to improve the quality of well control training through a series of technical taskforces.

Among the areas of focus are drilling, well intervention and completion, quality of training, crew resource management, enhanced certificate renewal, High Pressure High Temperature.

The IWCF said these taskforces will consist of board members, member center representatives, and independent industry specialists. Additionally, it will begin a new introductory online course.