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Feds Dive into Offshore Bolt Failures

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

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Corporate officials and federal regulators are scrutinizing the integrity of massive bolts connecting subsea structures in the oil and gas industry.

While corrosion-related failures have led to costly shutdowns and increased concerns regarding the threat of oil spills, investigators are looking at the materials used to manufacture the bolts, as well as the use of coatings, The Wall Street Journal reported Friday (July 8).

BSEE bolt image
Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement

Industry officials and safety regulators are working to identify why bolts on offshore oil wells are failing; their focus is on materials, coatings and installation practices.

The potential impact has a far reach—spanning more than 2,400 platforms and oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, another 23 off the coast of California, and one rig on the outer continental shelf in Alaska, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).

A History of Failure

The recent inquiry activity stems from a 2013 U.S. Department of the Interior investigation prompted when General Electric Co.’s oil exploration equipment division issued a recall for bolts on its blowout preventers, the Journal noted.

While the faulty bolts have not yet resulted in any oil leaks or spills, safety officials aim to prevent a major oil leak resulting from the defective, corroded bolts that sometimes crack.

“This is what we view as a very critical safety issue,” said Allyson Anderson Book, associate director of the BSEE at the DOI.

“If your smallest component fails, you can’t expect a sophisticated many-million-dollar piece of equipment” to perform as intended, she added.

The investigation has unearthed bolt failures as far back as 2003, according to officials. However, data on the issue remains sparse, according to BSEE, as owners are not currently required to report equipment failures except in certain scenarios, such as when they lead to oil leaks

That will no longer be the case after July 28, officials note. Then, new rules prompted by 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill go into effect, requiring more reporting of breakdowns, including bolt failures discovered during regular maintenance. The new regulations also call for information sharing among competitors about equipment failures, the Journal reports.

Material, Installation Analysis

The investigation ramped up following two recent bolt failures, which suggested to regulators and industry officials that the problem may not lie only in GE’s products.

The DOI reported that defective bolts were also identified from National Oilwell Varco Inc. and the Cameron Unit of Schlumberger Ltd., GE’s main competitors for blowout preventers. Flaws have also been found in bolts used in other subsea wells.

While GE notes that its bolts come from subcontractors, which it did not name, that perform “rigorous safety testing” before delivery to customers, manufacturers and regulators continue to look into a variety of factors that could be contributing to the failures.

Deepater Horizon site
By Sara Francis, U.S. Coast Guard / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The investigation is a continuation of a 2013 Department of the Interior action prompted by General Electric Co.’s worldwide recall for defective bolts that corroded and snapped; such failures pose the risk of of major oil leaks, like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

A working group is examining metallurgical data to verify whether the alloys used in the heavy steel bolts are hard enough to survive in the subsea environment, and whether appropriate coatings are in place.

The team is also considering whether excessive tightening, or “over-torquing,” during equipment installation weakens the materials. According to the Journal, GE has said that over-torquing likely plays a role in its bolt failures.

Standards and Replacement

While the investigation continues, regulators are reportedly partnering with drilling companies, manufacturers and industry trade group American Petroleum Institute (API) to create new standards for minimum hardness and coating of subsea equipment bolts, in addition to assembly and installation guidelines.

In the meantime, the BSEE is urging companies to replace existing equipment as soon as possible. Likewise, API suggests that companies should replace critical bolts that don’t meet the upcoming hardness standard by the end of 2017.

Despite feeling the effects of the slump in oil prices, many oil companies already have begun to invest in the replacement of corroded bolts.

Diamond Offshore Drilling Co., for example, performed four unplanned “stack pulls” (in which the equipment on top of a subsea well is raised to the surface and repaired) in the second quarter. According to Diamond Chief Executive Marc Edwards, three of those repairs involved failed bolts.

Such repair work has far-reaching effects on the industry—it affects the oil company, in that it loses all income from those rigs during the two- to three-week shutdown, as well as its own customers, who lose between $600,000 and $800,000 a day during repairs, Edwards notes.

The manufacturer in this case is also affected, according to Edwards. Diamond now rents its blowout preventers from GE, he explains, and pays based on the amount of time the equipment is in working condition.


Tagged categories: Asia Pacific; Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement ; Coating Materials; Corrosion; Department of the Interior; EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa); Environmental Protection; Government; Latin America; Marine; North America; Offshore; Oil and Gas; Pipeline; Regulations; Safety

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