5 Improvements in Offshore Oil Drilling


Sturdier Wells

One of the causes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster was the failure of cement sealing, which lined the hole bored in the Gulf floor and held the pipe that goes down through the rig in place. New federal regulations require that an engineer certify that the cementing can withstand the pressures to which it will be subjected. BP says that in the future, it will not take its construction contractors' word that its wells are strong enough to withstand the extreme pressures to which they'll be subjected. Instead, the company will require laboratory testing of the cement used in the portions of wells that'll be under the most stress. This testing will be done by either a BP engineer or an independent inspector.

Some experts think BP and other oil drillers should go even further to strengthen wells. For example, oil industry engineers told Technology Review that the design of the Deepwater Horizon's well was fatally flawed because of BP's decision to install a continuous set of threaded casting pipes -- essentially, one long pipe -- from the wellhead down to the bottom of the well. That method seals off the space between the pipe casing and the bore hole drilled for the well, making it difficult to detect leaks that develop during construction, and allows gas from the oil deposit more time to build up and percolate, raising the risk of an explosion. Instead, critics want to see oil wells built in pieces, with each section of pipe cemented in place before the next one is installed. That slow, cautious method would enable builders to watch for leaks that might develop while the concrete is setting, and to fix them more easily. Unfortunately, it also would be costly.