Bolts and fasteners are failing at an alarming rate on subsea oil and gas equipment in the Gulf of Mexico, and regulators today spotlighted the high stakes involved as they reached out widely for help.
"We're aware of close to a dozen cases where bolts have failed," Brian Salerno, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, told federal and industry officials at a meeting on the issue in Washington, D.C., today.
To date there have been no catastrophic failures resulting in loss of life or massive hydrocarbon spills stemming from the problem, Salerno said, "but it may be a matter of time before our luck runs out."
Known incidents of bolt failures — in which fasteners sheared off or were stripped of their threads — now date back to 2003, but BSEE only recently began collecting data on the issue beyond cases that surfaced because of resulting injuries or spills.
The growing data on "near miss" incidents have begun revealing a massive problem.
In 2010, Salerno said, a blow-out preventer was being tested on board a ship when all 20 of its connector bolts failed. The bolts, each 20 inches long and 3 inches thick, all stripped or cracked during testing. Because the equipment was in a maintenance mode on the ship rather than underwater in operation, the operator was able to replace the connectors without serious repercussions.
The agency currently has data on "nearly a dozen" similar incidents involving the potential failure of key safety equipment.
Last month, BSEE instituted safety rules that require operators to report all such bolt failures, a step that Salerno and others describe as crucial to getting a better idea of what is going wrong (EnergyWire, July 27).
The agency has identified nine areas for further investigation, including the metallurgical makeup of the fasteners, coatings baked onto them, the quality controls for subcontractors that produce the bolts and whether they are being over-tightened during installation.
The wide net of inquiry underscores how poorly regulators understand the problem; Salerno said industry, too, has an incomplete picture as individual incidents of bolt failure have long been overlooked.
Today's meeting in Washington included participants in a "bolt action team" brought together by BSEE to look for answers.
Marcia McNutt, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, described the group's job as one where "failure is not an option," comparing the mission to a successful one undertaken in the 1960s to stem a series of catastrophic losses of nuclear submarines.
The academy is being commissioned to conduct its own study of the problem, Salerno said, which will work in parallel with BSEE's and an industry investigation being led by the American Petroleum Institute.
Addressing reporters outside the meeting, Salerno acknowledged that BSEE may lack authority to address the problem if the solution were found tomorrow.
"We'd have some authority; whether it would be sufficient, I don't know," Salerno said.
The three vendors that supply the subsea equipment that have seen failures are General Electric Co., National Oilwell Varco Inc. and Cameron International Corp., which is now a subdivision of Schlumberger Ltd., but the manufacturing of bolts is often subcontracted to other vendors.
One question is whether those vendors, which are not well-overseen, are supplying equipment that meets specifications.
GE recalled and replaced about 11,000 fasteners on equipment throughout the Gulf in 2013, and Salerno said the agency did not have data on whether any failures had occurred in replaced bolts.
A cost estimate for the replacement of all remaining bolts in the field is not available, according to Salerno.
But he stressed that while the root causes of the failures remain unknown, the agency's focus is on working together with industry to find answers. Solving the problem is in everyone's best interest, he stressed, and industry is cooperating with regulators to untangle what is causing the failures.
Salerno said regulators have not considered suspending subsea operations until a solution is found. But after earlier discussions of a gradual replacement program for the failing hardware, Salerno said the agency's "thinking has evolved" about whether that approach would be appropriate.
"We believe this problem needs to be solved sooner rather than later," he said.
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