After the spill: research for safer offshore operations

Article by James Pettigrew

ON 20 April 2010, the Deepwater Horizon incident tragically heralded a period of change for both the oil and gas industry and how it is regulated. While the world’s immediate attention focused on preventing the ongoing oil spill and cleaning up the environment, efforts also got underway to learn and share lessons from the incident and establish partnerships that are now helping to improve offshore operations.

Among the series of recommendations that followed, was a request for the Department of the Interior to establish an Ocean Energy Safety Institute (OESI). The OESI was established in 2013 to provide an independent organisation that could bring together stakeholders from across the offshore community. These stakeholders included the industry itself, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and other regulators, academia, and non-governmental organisations.

Talking together

‘Forums for Dialogue’ have been held periodically since May 2014 to bring together these stakeholders to share their perspectives. They initially covered topics that BSEE was interested in but went on to cover interests of the wider community. Each forum also generated areas of research interest.

The forum topics included:

  • Risk awareness, Risk Perception and Using the Awareness and Perception in Making Operational Decisions on a Continuing basis in oil and gas operations
  • Eliminating Barriers to Data Sharing, and Solutions
  • Ocean Energy Safety Research Roadmap for the 21st Century
  • Maintaining a High-level of Focus and Increasing the Safety Culture in the Shallow Water Operating Environment
  • Decreasing Ocean Energy Safety Incidents through Greater Incorporation of Human Factors and Human-Systems Integration
  • Taking Safety and Environmental Management Systems (SEMS) to the Next Level
  • Keeping a Focus on Barriers for Safer Offshore Operations
  • Focusing on Alarm Management for Safer Offshore Operations
  • Focusing on Managing Drilling Margin and Well Control Risk
  • Public Technology Assessment Program (TAP)
  • Discussing Best Practices for Real Time Monitoring (RTM)
  • Public Forum on Initial BSEE BAST EKD & MGD Technology Solutions
  • Human Factors to Support Safer and Effective Offshore Energy Operations
  • Process Safety in Wells, Leading Indicators in Well Control

The second area that OESI was asked to focus on was conducting relevant collaborative research that could be accomplished by the three Tier 1 research universities: Texas A&M University, the University of Houston, and the University of Texas – Austin. Based on the results of the initial Forums for Dialogue, and meetings with stakeholders across industry, government, and academia, three primary research areas emerged:

  • Zonal isolation: zonal isolation and poor cementing was a primary factor in the Deepwater Horizon disaster and was still an area of concern for stakeholders
  • Human factors: how people work together and interface with machines and data readouts was again another issue raised by incident investigators; and was a growing area of concern for stakeholders.
  • New materials: the corrosive environment offshore provided the opportunity for research and use of new-cutting edge materials.

These research areas allowed for collaboration across the partner universities and resulted in papers for each topic, which can be downlaoded at  

The titles of these papers are:

  • Advanced Modeling of Cement Displacement Complexities
  • Human Factors and Ergonomics in Offshore Drilling and Production: The Implications for Drilling Safety
  • Interfacial Phenomena and Mechanical Behavior of Polyetheretherketone/Polybenzimidazole Blend under Hygrothermal Environment

Additionally, the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) in their final report on Deepwater Horizon recommended that OESI “Conduct further study on riser gas unloading scenarios, testing, and modeling and publish a white paper containing technical guidance that communicates findings and makes recommendations for industry safety improvements.”

In a joint research effort, facilitated by OESI, Texas A&M University, and Louisiana State University are studying Experiments on Multiphase Flow of Live Muds in a Full-Scale Wellbore with Distributed Sensing for Kick and Gas-in-riser Detection/Mitigation. This joint research is separately funded by the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Gulf Research Program. The results of this research are expected to be available in early 2021. However, the new capabilities and the impacts of this project are already reaching industry.

Sharing the research

Through participation in key industry subcommittees and communication through technical conferences and technical publications, we have helped increase understanding across stakeholders. Additionally, by pursuing fundamental questions surrounding key issues like multiphase flow in the annuli, high temperature high pressure (HTHP) mud properties, and solubility kinetics, safer offshore operations will be strengthened. As a welcome side-effect, the project is also spawning translational projects that are linking oil and gas with biomedical applications. The technologies for visualisation of gas flows in rheological fluids, hydraulic system dynamics characterisation, fiber optics sensing technologies, and gas solubility kinetics all have application to the medical field as well as the oil and gas industry.

These dialogue opportunities, and specific areas of research allowed OESI to look to the future of research requirements for continued improvement in offshore safety. While significant academic-based research is underway, much of the current study is the result of Deepwater Horizon findings from ten years ago. So, how do we get ahead of the issues that are and will arise in future offshore operations?

To help meet this need, OESI has published a 21st Century Ocean Energy Research Roadmap. The roadmap is based on work with multiple offshore industry groups, including the Research Partnership for a Secure Energy America (RPSEA), the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), the Gulf Research Program, the Center for Offshore Safety (COS). Current and future research needs are discussed and grouped into the following subject areas:

  • drilling and completions
  • operations
  • production
  • transportation
  • spills
  • technology transfer

The purpose of developing the roadmap and identifying areas of future capability development was to lay out a plan, to inform the way ahead for research opportunities, for OESI and others. Ultimately, ensuring that the scarce resources put toward research are focused into areas that will further increase safer operations offshore; and not just push an academic agenda.

Getting proactive

While a number of areas have been identified by the roadmap, one area stood out that OESI could help move forward within their budget constraints. The need to move away from reactionary measures (lagging) to proactive measures (leading) was identified in a number of the forums.

Shell is championing this work to develop a ‘leading indicators dashboard (LID)’. Initially, this LID would look at a well-control system offshore, but ultimately it could be fashioned for most onshore and offshore upstream operations. The key is to map out the barriers of the system and understand what goes into the health of those barriers. A key concept for the LID is that it would look at both technical (e.g. mud pit readings) and non-technical (e.g. training status of crew) and assess the health of those system barriers and depict where the risk might be highest, and the inter-relations of those system barriers. By moving to leading indicators, this would be a step-change in how decisions are made. This project is currently in the stage of identifying the appropriate barriers and their data feeds to inform the measures of barrier health. This capability development and change in operational thinking will provide an increase in safer operations offshore and elsewhere.

Throughout the evolution of OESI, the primary focus has been to “help enable safer and environmentally responsible ocean energy operations.” This mission is just as valid today and into the future as when it was initially assigned. OESI’s mission and its efforts will continue core to offshore operations and more importantly can be useful to the whole upstream sector. While the horizon for OESI as an organization may be limited (the cooperative agreement with BSEE that funds OESI ends in August 2020); the requirement for what OESI has brought to the offshore stakeholders does not diminish. With ever-increasing complexity of operations from the beginning of seismic operations to decommissioning of assets, there is a need to continue the dialogue, to exchange ideas and experience, and to inform the research agenda to support all stakeholders.

This article is part of series called Deepwater Horizon: a Decade On. Read the rest of the series here

Article by James Pettigrew

Principal Investigator and Director of Operations at the Ocean Energy Safety Institute (OESI)

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