Drilling industry responds to deep water challenges

Houston Chronicle:

Houston's National Oilwell Varco has unveiled what is says is the meanest cutting tool on the market, blades capable of puncturing and slicing through up to 2 inches of rock-solid steel in less than 30 seconds.

Housed in hulking 900,000-pound blowout preventer stacks made at the company's northwest Houston manufacturing facility, the blades are part of a new shear ram system meant to sever drill pipe at its thickest joints and stop an eruption of oil and natural gas in a blowout, all using less force than its counterparts. The industrial guillotine is a necessary but dreaded last resort, meant to be used only after the failure of other lines of defense — hundreds of pounds of heavy drilling mud and two to three powerful pipe rams.

"We have developed an incredible technology that we hope will never have to be used," said Frank Springett, vice president for pressure control engineering at National Oilwell Varco, the largest oil field equipment company in the world.

The company's timing in introducing its low-force shear technology is no accident. Contractors are taking a hard look at their rigs' safety equipment as tough new drilling regulations loom after the Deepwater Horizon accident.

The breakdown of that drilling rig's 450-ton stack unleashed a blowout that killed 11 men and set off a 4.9-million-barrel oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico - prompting a push to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Investigative hearings in Houston last week by the Coast Guard and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement included a focus on the blowout preventer's initial failure and engineers' later failed attempts to activate it.

While stiffer requirements are in the works, interim federal safety rules passed June 8 are boosting development of new technology by a Houston-centered industry that designs and manufactures blowout preventers and other pressure control equipment.

Manufacturers say sales of new equipment have yet to pick up significantly, but many are reporting a miniboom in newly required recertifications and inspections of parts and systems.

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There is more.

I am not surprised the drilling industry has responded to the challenges caused by the Gulf blowout. I suspect we will see even more innovation in the coming months, if this administration will get out of the way and open the Gulf for business again.

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