Platts: BP Spill Seen Changing Offshore Drilling

BP's massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico will lead to sweeping changes in how the industry drills wells and produces oil and natural gas from deepwater plays, two experts said Tuesday at a Platts Energy Podium.

The pair also said BP's runaway Macondo well, the site of the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling rig explosion, likely won't stop spilling oil into the gulf until the first relief well is completed in mid-August.

"The relief well is the solution," Eric Smith, a Tulane University professor and associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute, told Platts Energy Podium, a newsmaker media briefing in Washington. Smith was joined at the podium by Brad Beitler, vice president of technology with subsea equipment maker FMC Technologies.

Both men agreed that investigators ultimately will find that human errors in drilling the well — rather than equipment or technical failures — caused the April blowout.

"The technical limits haven't been reached in ultra deepwater drilling," Beitler said. "The process limits, maybe."

Beitler said the 1988 explosion of the Piper Alpha production platform in the North Sea, which killed 167 workers, led governments and operators to completely revamp their approaches to drilling and production in that region. He said he expects similar changes will follow the current disaster.

"Piper Alpha was a turning point," the 35-year industry veteran said, with many questioning whether production from the North Sea should continue. A commission, investigating the accident, eventually recommended 106 safety “best practices”, all of which were adopted by the industry.

Both Smith and Beitler said they believe the government may start to require mandatory relief wells in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, as Canada and Norway have done off their coasts.

Beitler also predicted that another outcome of Macondo will be more standardization of well design requirements worldwide, with the U.S. adopting regulations such as requiring acoustic activators for blowout preventers.