Government, industry warnings persist a year after Macondo

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, Apr. 21 -- Government and industry officials cited substantial progress in improving offshore oil and gas operations on the first anniversary of the Macondo deepwater well accident and oil spill. They also warned against a return to the complacency and overconfidence that existed before the Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible rig caught fire and killed 11 workers on Apr. 20, 2010.

“There was an immediate consensus that stronger rules were needed. That began to fray as we issued tougher regulations,” US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement Director Michael R. Bromwich recalled on Apr. 19.

“We need to do everything possible to keep complacency from creeping back, both in the industry and in the agency that regulates it,” he said in remarks at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum on the Gulf of Mexico’s oil and gas future after the accident and spill.

US Interior Sec. Ken Salazar was much more direct when he and Bromwich met with reporters on Apr. 12. “When you go through a horrific national crisis like this, it’s important not to make the same mistakes,” he said. “If we have another blowout like Macondo without the capacity to contain it, it would mean death to oil and gas development in America’s oceans.”

‘Honor their memory’
“In the wake of this tragedy, it is appropriate for our industry to continue an intensive, thorough, collective, and cooperative self-examination,” National Ocean Industries Association Pres. Randall B. Luthi said on Apr. 20. “We honor their memory by remaining committed to an environment of safety and accident prevention that will guard against a future tragedy.”

At the CSIS forum a day earlier, Christopher A. Smith, deputy assistant US energy secretary for oil and gas in the US Department of Energy’s fossil fuel office, began his audiovisual presentation by displaying names of the 11 men who died in the accident, saying, “They’re the main reason we’re doing all this.”

Smith said recovered data show drilling and contracting crews aboard the Deepwater Horizon were doing a high-stakes balancing act just before the Macondo well blew out. It involved hydrostatic pressure vs. formation pressure, pore pressure vs. frac-gradient, data vs. intuition, and the fail-safe barrier. All revolved around making important decisions quickly to control the well.

Displaying Sperry-Sun data from that time, Smith said investigators were able to highlight several bits of information afterward that indicated there were serious problems. “Individuals on the rig would have had to see, evaluate, and act on them in real time” and without their being highlighted, he pointed out. Interior’s Ocean Energy Advisory Council discussed this extensively when it met for the first time on Apr. 18, said Smith, who is a member of the group which Salazar formed after accident.

Salazar and Bromwich, in their Apr. 12 press briefing, said the industry’s response in the days and weeks following the accident was impressive. Taskforces assembled important information and quickly relayed it as Interior launched reforms that included completely restructuring what was then the US Minerals Management Service and refocusing its emphasis from encouraging offshore leasing and revenue generation to resource management and regulatory enforcement, they said.

‘Post-Macondo world’
Some companies and trade associations subsequently acknowledged that changes were needed, Salazar said. “We have seen signs that many recognize that this is a post-Macondo world,” he said. “But no one is saying that everything is being done that needs to be done.”

“Several companies have said it was a wake-up call. Others said it was an anomaly,” said Bromwich, adding, “I think that’s been debunked by [US President Barack Obama’s spill investigation] commission, which said there were 79 previous incidents which were nearly as serious. Those were 79 near-Macondos. We have to be clear-eyed about this and recognize there’s no way we can make risks zero. But we can make them as low as possible.”

Charlie Williams, chief scientist for well engineering at Shell Energy Resources Co., noted at the CSIS forum that what is different in offshore oil and gas operations since the accident and spill can be summed up in a single word: everything.

“There have been a lot of good, positive changes post-Macondo, but several good things in terms of practices were going on in the industry before, and they have been enhanced,” he observed. Better spill containment capability, well containment and intervention capability, and industry drilling standards will be essential in making offshore operations safer, he said.

Four joint industry taskforces formed soon after the accident are continuing work on offshore equipment, offshore procedures, subsea well control and containment, and oil spill preparedness and response, Williams said. Their purpose remains to identify any gaps in operations and practices which could affect safety; find ways to address those gaps via recommended practices, procedures, and research and development; and improve the industry’s safety, environmental performance, and spill prevention and response capabilities, he said.

Spill response
More than 20 individual work groups are seeking ways to improve responses to offshore spills, Williams said. The strategy includes expanding and enhancing key response tools, increasing mechanical recovery capability (including raising the number of available deepwater vessels from 7 to 18 and implementing technology which can detect spills at night and in adverse weather), increasing near-show skimming capacity by 100% and full-time response personnel by 30%, and raising dispersant inventories and aircraft capacity, he said.

In well design, Williams said that American Petroleum Institute Recommended Practice 65’s second part dealing with isolating potential flow zones during cementing has been modified, along with RP 96 which discusses well design. “There’s a lot of emphasis now in the industry now on having designs where you can successfully install a capping stack,” he noted.

Offshore well operators now must demonstrate that they can control and contain a spill before they receive a permit under new regulations issued since the accident and spill, Bromwich said. Interior also may ask Congress to extend its jurisdiction beyond producers to drilling contractors and service and supply companies which it currently does not regulate, he added. Industry officials are seeking ways to reconcile sometimes conflicting operation and safety procedures used by producers and their contractors, Williams indicated.

In his address at the CSIS forum, Bromwich said while the industry and government’s responses in the year since the accident and spill were constructive, political statements implying that a de facto offshore drilling moratorium exists were not. They also inaccurate and create an erroneous public perception that delays have occurred for political purposes, he maintained.

“I believe in the tangible results I have seen, in meetings with industry, out on offshore rigs, and in the interest in our work I have seen in academic institutions I have visited over the year,” Bromwich said. “People are watching our work around the world, are interested and invested in it, and know the stakes involved in whether we succeed. We cannot afford to fail, and we do not plan to fail. We are determined to succeed in creating a system that allows continued offshore development while ensuring safety and environmental protection.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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