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Offshore’s Next Big Headache: Breakable Bolts

Offshore Oil Rig

The phrase “deepwater well” still makes a lot of people shiver, even six years after the Deepwater Horizon disaster that caused the worst oil-related environmental catastrophe in history. That blowout in the Macondo well in April 2010 resulted in 11 human casualties and almost 5 million barrels of crude being released into the water. One of the reasons for the huge spill was a malfunction in the blowout preventer of the well.

Now it has emerged that faulty bolts in offshore oil well equipment are something of an epidemic, threatening another major disaster.

GE was the first to raise the alarm, baffled that the bolts it uses in the equipment it sells to E&Ps for offshore operations corrode and sometimes snap with no apparent reason, threatening to spill oil. An investigation into the matter was launched back in 2013 by the Department of the Interior, and it soon turned out that the problem is not limited to GE equipment. It’s not new either – evidence of faulty bolts goes back to 2003.

Interior Department officials told The Wall Street Journal that bolts used by GE competitors including Schlumberger and National Oilwell Varco, and like GE’s, produced by subcontractors, are also prone to snapping. The bolts in question are thought to be in an estimated 2,400 platforms just in the Gulf alone.

So far, thankfully, no oil spills have occurred, but the faults have cost the companies operating the faulty equipment some serious cash. Carrying out stack pulls—a process that is necessary to replace many of the bolts—requires shutting down oil wells, sometimes for weeks— is no cheap matter. Related: Has Google Overtaken Tesla In The Self-Driving Car Race?

The problem took a while to surface because, for now, oil well operators are not under any obligation to report faulty equipment unless it leads to a spill. This, however, is about to change very soon.

On 28 July, new safety regulations come into force, prompted by the 2010 disaster. The regulations include stricter design requirements for offshore well equipment as well as more stringent reporting rules. E&Ps will now have to report on bolt failures they discover during regular maintenance sessions.

At the same time, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement is working with drillers, bolt makers and American Petroleum Institute to raise the quality standards of the hardware used in well equipment. Issues addressed include hardness and coating, as well as assembly and installation guidelines.

It’s sheer luck that nothing has happened because of faulty bolts, given that there are 2,400 platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing, that is, aside from the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, of course. Now that this greater level of responsibility is being stipulated in official regulations, there’s reason to hope the risk of another huge environmental and economic tragedy will be reduced. Related: Iran Aims To Double Oil Exports, These Are The Hurdles

The industry, including ExxonMobil, has complained about the new regulations, saying they will be very costly and will result in a greater—rather than smaller—risk of new blowouts, “by wresting decision-making from on-site engineers with decades of experience,” Bloomberg reported at the time. BP also argued that some of the rules will increase risk: for instance, the proposal to cement the area around the steel pipe that lines an offshore well could create circumstances conducive to the formation of air pockets that would lead to cracks.

The industry’s criticism could be completely legitimate. On the other hand, it could be an attempt to reverse the changes because they will indeed be costly. Though government estimates put these at $1 billion over ten years, Exxon projected the costs to be $25 billion, and an API-commissioned analysis by Quest Offshore and Blade Energy Partners put the figure even higher, at $31.8 billion.

BP’s credibility has been seriously compromised after 2010, and Exxon’s environmental record is also far from crystal clear. Even so, they may have a solid reason to criticize the new regulations. The government, however, cannot just take these criticisms at face value and drop the changes. If the costs turn out to be impossible to handle by the E&Ps and they are forced to curb drilling, then that would be even better from an environmental perspective – the risks of an oil spill are lower when there are fewer wells.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com:

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Leave a comment
  • Colin Macdonald on July 19 2016 said:
    The Macondo disaster had nothing to do with bolt failure and stemmed from the failure of at least 5 barriers of safety. With 2400 platforms in the Gulf and many thousands more the absence of any major offshore accident due to this mechanism is surely more than luck. Probably because no flange has ever failed because of a single bolt shearing.
    The 12 casualties on Macondo were actually fatalities, and this is tragic. There have however been more fatalities in helicopter crashes in the last 20years, they don't receive the appellation "disaster" because more importantly no seabirds died, only poor benighted oil workers. In fact there seems to have been no long environmental impact from Macondo either.
    As Exxon says leave it to the engineers to decide whether something is safe, not the legislature.

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