New US rule prescribes offshore safety equipment

OREANDA-NEWS. August 30, 2016. US offshore drilling safety regulator has finalized a rule mandating specific types of equipment and practices that it says will keep up with the industry's recent technological advances in deepwater exploration.

The Interior Department's Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) also is indicating that more prescriptive rules could be on the way, despite complaints from the industry.

The new production safety systems rule reflects the industry's shift to deeper waters and to use more sophisticated technology located on the seabed, the agency said. "By updating the requirements for these critical safety systems, we are meeting our commitment to promote the highest level of protection for both offshore workers and the environment," BSEE director Brian Salerno said.

The average depth of deepwater producing oil and natural gas fields discovered in the US Gulf rose to 5,644ft (1.72km) since 2010, from 4,795ft in 2000s and 3,515ft in 1990s, BSEE data show. US Gulf oil output was 1.54mn b/d in 2015 and could reach 1.85mn b/d in 2017, according to the US Energy Information Administration. The projected increase, which bucks the trend in shale regions, reflects costly long-term projects expected to start production in the next two years.

The rule adds new design, inspection and repair requirements for subsurface safety devices in a first comprehensive change to the production safety system regulations since 1988. Industry groups American Petroleum Institute (API) and National Ocean Industries Association said they are reviewing the rule.

The agency said enforcing the rule would cost an estimated \\$47,259/yr for each of the 99 offshore operators it affects. Many comments during the rulemaking process suggested a much higher cost of compliance. But the industry also is concerned about the direction of the rulemaking, decrying recent regulations by BSEE as too prescriptive.

"We are always looking for a balance between prescriptive and performance based [rules]," Salerno said today. Salerno was speaking at a forum with industry representatives that discussed the repeated failure of bolts used on offshore drilling equipment, such as subsea blowout preventers.

The failures raise serious safety and environmental hazard concerns and BSEE is keen to find out its root causes together with the industry before mandating a solution, Salerno said. BSEE became aware of the issue in 2013, when Chevron discovered faulty bolts following a minor spill. The problem appears to be more widespread than either the industry or government inspectors have realized, assistant interior secretary for land and minerals management Janice Schneider said today at the forum.

"We are seeing more incidents over the last few years," Schneider said. No plausible theory still exists, although indications are the bolt failures correlate with the industry's push to explore at greater depths, she said. "The industry is looking at it in a very robust way," Schneider said. "It has such a direct effect on them, in addition to the potential for catastrophic failure."

The API, which took part in today's forum, said it would "continue leading the charge on this issue and working diligently with BSEE and other stakeholders to enhance operations as necessary."

The API in March has proposed voluntary actions by the industry to address BSEE's concerns. API and its standard-setting committee is "part of the solution" but finding a solution also requires working with equipment manufacturers and government experts, Salerno said.