(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Energy and Environment Subcommittee held a hearing to explore technologies, standards, and practices for the prevention and mitigation of oil spills during deepwater oil and natural gas drilling operations.
“The Deepwater Horizon tragedy proved that, in this high-stakes game, poor judgment and faulty equipment can bring unimaginable consequences. It is precisely because this incident occurred in 5,000 feet of water that we are discussing an ongoing oil spill 64 days after it began,” said Chairman Brian Baird (D- WA).
On April 20, 2010, an explosion and fire occurred on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. While an investigation into the Deepwater Horizon accident is ongoing, both critical human errors and equipment failure have been blamed for contributing to the incident. Members and witnesses discussed the possible improvements in technologies to prevent and mitigate these accidents, with a focus on determining the appropriate role of government-sponsored technology development programs in advancing these technologies and other safety measures.
“Our charge is to understand the technological advances and best practices to further ensure that drilling in the deepwater can be done with minimal risk to workers and the environment,” said Baird (D-WA).
Initial investigations of the incident cite the Blowout Preventer (BOP) as the primary technology failure. The BOP is a large mechanism that includes a series of high pressure hydraulic valves designed to stop an uncontrolled flow of oil and gas from the well. The final line of defense for the BOP is the “blind shear ram” which uses two blades to cut through the metal drill pipe and seal the wellbore. The strength and reliability of blind shear rams have repeatedly been called into question by a number of studies and tests conducted in the last decade.
Deepwater drilling presents a unique set of technological challenges, especially for safety and incident prevention. For example, deeper drilling requires stronger drill pipe--and, consequently, larger BOPs capable of exerting higher pressure to shear a drill pipe in case of emergency. Furthermore, deepwater oil and gas reservoirs may be under intense pressures beyond those encountered in conventional operations. These operations require state-of-the-art floating drill rigs, and utilize extensive subsea installations to perform a range of functions. Such subsea equipment must be robust enough to operate under extreme pressures and temperatures, while vessels must withstand the varying surface conditions of the open ocean.
Critics contend that, while industry has devoted billions of dollars to researching and developing technologies to produce oil and gas from the deepwater and ultra-deepwater drilling, comparatively limited resources have been devoted to the development of technologies for accident prevention and mitigation. Members and witnesses also discussed the health and environmental safety practices in the oil and natural gas drilling industry.
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 authorized the Secretary of Energy to establish an ultra-deepwater and unconventional onshore resources research and development program. Management of the program was awarded to the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, or RPSEA. RPSEA administers a public - private partnership that performs research and development for the ultra-deepwater in the Gulf of Mexico, unconventional onshore natural gas, and other national petroleum resources. Mr. James Pappas testified about the role of government programs and RPSEA in developing technologies to prevent and mitigate incidences.