OTC: Oil spill prevention an international issue, DOE says

Oil spill prevention in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico and around the world is an international challenge where nations must work together to avoid another major incident, said Christopher Smith, principal deputy assistant secretary at the US Department of Energy, during a May 6 panel discussion at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston.

“We’re on a playing field in which the goal posts are constantly moving,” Smith said, explaining that variables such as evolving technology, changes in weather, water depth, temperature, and pressure affect drilling operations to different degrees.

Operators and government agencies also have to deal with gray area in the form of territorial boundaries, which are often disputed, Smith said. To improve efficiency in dealing with prevention, nations must share information on technology and best practices with each other so there are no discrepancies.

This is particularly the case in the Arctic, where seven nations share boundaries and interest in drilling is ramping up. “There is a fear and mistrust about us being able to drill there without incident,” Smith said.

Brian Salerno, director of the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), which launched in 2010 after the Macondo blowout, described the Arctic as the primary focus of regulators at the moment. The agency is closely monitoring the region so it can appropriately respond to spills.

Salerno said better coordination is needed on spill planning between different government organizations as well as operators and those organizations.

‘Operators must take responsibility’

Salerno emphasized that “operators must take responsibility” for their highly complex operations. Because those companies are high reliability organizations, they must assume every process will fail and compensate by building redundancies.

Close attention must be paid to process risk with proper data interpretation and decision making, he said. “Most accidents we see develop from the human element, so philosophies must start from the top.”

Chevron Corp. is developing a well containment program it calls WELLSAFE for process safety in spill prevention on its rigs. It’s based on the US Navy’s SUBSAFE program, which emerged shortly after the sinking of nuclear submarine USS Thresher in 1963 that killed 129 crew members. The Navy hasn’t lost a SUBSAFE certified submarine since the program was implemented.

Components of WELLSAFE, development of which began in March 2012, include clear and written requirements for operations, involvement from everyone top to bottom, a shift from training to education so that workers truly understand what they’re doing, and a continual certifications process to account for industry changes.

Chevron said a WELLSAFE standard has been issued, and a deployment schedule is in progress. The company expects deployment across all units by 2016.

Norway’s Statoil ASA is implementing an early kick detection system to detect a kick early on while drilling, a smart flowback system to detect abnormal flow, and an ECD management system for bottom hole pressure control.

Activity from regulators

Regulators, meanwhile, oversee more than 100 industry standards, and BSEE’s biggest challenge now is regulating where there are no industry standards, Salerno said. Shallow-water drilling, which encompasses a greater variance of smaller companies that lack the technological strength of their larger counterparts, is also under close scrutiny.

“Many people think deepwater is the problem, but it’s not,” remarked Uno Holm Rognli, Statoil vice-president, offshore US drilling and wells, adding that geological uncertainty exists regardless of water depth.

To stay dialed in, the bureau has established ongoing communication with operators and created the Ocean Energy Safety Institute (OESI), whose purpose is to identify and verify the best available and safest technology, and implement operational improvements in offshore drilling safety and environmental protection, blowout containment, and oil spill response.

Salerno said his agency is focusing on the collection of near-miss data that will supplement existing information so they fully understand risk. He noted that regulators have made numerous changes since Macondo and those changes will continue, as a well containment rule is being finalized and a well control rule is forthcoming.

Rognli said Statoil is accustomed to functional requirements as established in its native Norway. The US, meanwhile, tells companies “what to do and how to do it.”

Contact Matt Zborowski at matthewz@ogjonline.com.

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