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One inherently safer option that many petroleum engineers are considering is bringing BOPs to the surface. In this scheme the BOP on the wellhead thousands of feet below the ocean surface is backed up by a second BOP on the drill rig that would be accessible for more regular inspection and testing. Doing so would mean hardening the risers that link the wellhead and the drill rig to handle extreme pressures.

It’s a suggestion that Kimbrough thinks is impractical. “The cost would be somewhere near prohibitive,” he says. “Just the cost to develop the system would be astronomical.” Mandating something like that would delay new drilling by at least several years. “You’re talking about years to develop and test and prove up something like that.”

But Bommer says the potential costs are likely to be small compared to the economic impact and incalculable ecological damage that the Gulf region has sustained from BP’s leak. In Bommer’s view, if such “brute force” safety engineering pushes oil and gas companies to question whether it’s economically viable to tap deepwater reserves, so be it. “Cost is the last thing people should be thinking about now,” he says.

Another area pegged for technology development is deepwater leak response. BP’s ad-hoc response to the Deepwater Horizon leak has revealed the lack of equipment and procedures for high-pressure remote operations. BP’s CEO Tony Hayward acknowledged as much last week, saying that despite assurances in its drilling permit applications, BP “did not have the tools you would want” to respond to a deepwater leak.

In fact, the tool shortage for deepwater intervention is an issue long recognized by petroleum engineering researchers. The months-long process of drilling a relief well was, until now, the only proven fallback available in cases where the BOP fails to stop a blowout. A 2003 presentation by Texas A&M University researchers modeling deepwater blowouts cited reliance on relief wells as evidence of a “fatalistic mind-set in the industry.”

The lack of progress since then supports that assessment. Since 2005 Congress has left deepwater research primarily in the hands of the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, a U.S. Department of Energy-supported petroleum industry consortium in Sugar Land, Texas. But RPSEA has focused its $17 million annual budget for deepwater R&D on production-related issues.

Drilling engineers say the BP accident could finally provide the impetus for deepwater response tools. Funding to perfect some of the schemes that BP has thrown at the spill, they say, should spawn an entire deepwater response industry, analogous to the well-control contractors who secure hundreds of dangerous onshore wells per year worldwide.

James Pappas, RPSEA’s vice president of technical operations, claims that his consortium is already beginning to refocus its research agenda toward safety-related R&D. For example, he sees an opportunity to improve sensing capabilities inside deepwater wells after the drill bit is pulled: “That’s a weak spot right there, a blind side, that we haven’t really addressed as an industry.”

But Pappas and other engineers acknowledge that better training, BOPs, and response tools may not convince an outraged country that a sequel to the Deepwater Horizon disaster is impossible. They say it may take more radical upgrades to drilling technology to lift the current six-month moratorium. “We have to go back to square one and prove that we’re reliable and responsible enough to take care of our business,” says Pappas.

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Credit: U.S. Coast Guard/PA2 Gary Rives

Tagged: Energy, oil, BP, alternative energy, oil spills, Gulf oil spill

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