Researchers and regulators team up to launch new Ocean Energy Safety Institute

The Ocean Energy Safety Institute will be dedicated to updating federal regulations to account for technological advances in well drilling and production equipment.

Following a competitive bidding process, three universities in Texas have secured a contract to participate in the establishment of a new research center, which will be dedicated to updating federal regulations to account for technological advances in well drilling and production equipment. The facility's work could help address some of the harmful uncertainty this blog discussed previously.

According to Fuel Fix, the Ocean Energy Safety Institute was conceived during the effort to control BP's blown-out Macondo well in 2010. Regulators and industry stakeholders realized that the information sharing they were doing could continue to provide benefits long after they resolved the crisis.

The institute will receive $5 million in seed money from the federal government. The three schools that will participate in the project are the University of Houston, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas. Texas A&M's Mary Kay O'Connor Process Safety Center will manage the institute during its first five-year contract with the federal government.

Located on the Gulf Coast, supporters say they hope the facility will attract talent from the thriving tech community in the area. However, it remains unclear exactly how many people will be employed at the facility.

"Clearly we want to hire some people who will be full time in the institute, but we are still planning in conjunction with the Department of Interior," Texas A&M chemical engineering professor Sam Mannan told reporters. "We'd like to get (a better sense of) what is it that the stakeholders would like us to address. If they would like us to address larger projects and bigger projects, than staffing would increase."

Mannan added that, particularly with public resources being devoted to the center, it would be essential to make sound use of funding, and management was "not going to get staff just to have staff."

Cooperative research may aid producers in developing untapped reserves

Reporters say they expect the safety institute to play a central role in guiding the government's supervision of new efforts to establish oil and gas wells in emerging plays in the Arctic, where deep-water drilling sites and high-pressure reservoirs create significant challenges for drillers and well operators.

Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), told the press that he envisions the center becoming "a very good place for [government officials] to interact with industry and academia on emerging technologies."

"It will really focus many of our R&D interests," Salerno added.

In addition to facilitating coordination between public- and private-sector researchers and compiling data about the performance of drilling techniques and equipment, the facility will act as an educational resource where regulators can learn about new technologies. University of Houston chief energy officer Ramanan Krishnamoorti said this initiative will help private companies and government agencies enjoy a more "collaborative relationship," with the safety center acting as "the liaison between industry and the regulators."

Facility's role could expand in the future

Besides its basic functions of facilitating research and providing educational opportunities, the Ocean Energy Safety Institute is starting out with a number of specific goals, including:

  • Drafting "best practice" recommendations for oil and gas development on the Outer Continental Shelf
  • Developing a new international system for reporting oilfield equipment failures that affect well control
  • Creating a database to make information about known equipment reliability issues available to stakeholders.

Additional responsibilities could be added to this list in the coming years. The contract awarded to the three Texas universities will last five years but presumably, stakeholders will want to continue this project past that timeframe. The National Academy of Sciences has praised the initiative to improve safety, but indicated that the institute may need additional funding and a broader mandate to have a substantial impact on the industry's drilling, well completion and production practices.