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Gulf Disaster Fuels New Safety Gear

Last year's deadly oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has become an engine for innovation by energy-services companies and a compelling backdrop against which to roll out new products.

Companies large and small are introducing new devices that address some of the signature failures of the Deepwater Horizon blowout—from the equipment that failed to seal the well to the lack of technology for stanching the flow of oil into the Gulf.

A prime target for innovation is called a blowout preventer, a massive stack of valves that fits around drill pipe that extends into the earth's crust. The device, a rig's last line of defense against an out-of-control oil well, is equipped with hydraulic-powered blades known as a shear ram that cut the pipe as they close around it while attached blocks seal the well.

The Deepwater Horizon's drill pipe was bent and pushed off-center by the force of the blowout, and its shear ram lacked the force needed to cut through the deformed pipe and seal the well, leaving oil and natural gas to spurt into the Gulf.

Three major manufacturers of blowout preventers announced new designs earlier this month in Houston at the Offshore Technology Conference, an annual display of the industry's latest drilling equipment and services.

National Oilwell Varco says its new shear ram can cut thicker pipe with less force.

National Oilwell Varco Inc. is rolling out a ram with opposing shears shaped like the letter "w." The shears puncture the pipe as they converge on it, a design the company says is capable of slicing through thicker pipe with less force.

Cameron International Corp., which built the Deepwater Horizon blowout preventer, has also come up with a new ram to cut through and seal thicker pipe. General Electric Co.'s Oil and Gas division is promoting a suite of blowout-prevention equipment, including a design that increases the force available to the shears.

While it is unclear how effective the new technologies will be, the oil spill "did spur innovation to try to focus on the problems," said James Pappas, a vice president at the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, a nonprofit research consortium. "That's what you might call the silver lining."

T-3 Energy Services, a unit of Ohio-based Robbins & Myers, Inc., has seized on the failure of the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer to cut the off-center pipe. Its new ram features blades like can-openers that catch and sweep the pipe into the center as they close.

The ram can slice pipe with 30% to 50% less force than conventional rams, the company claims, adding that it could retrofit existing blowout preventers for between $450,000 and $600,000.

Drillers have begun to use thicker, sturdier pipe as they push into ever-deeper water in search of oil and natural gas. But "the shear ram technology had not changed," said Doug Jahnke, the T-3 engineer who designed the new ram. "It took a catalyst to expose that."

The need for stronger, more efficient shear rams was reinforced this month in an engineering report probing the cause of the blowout of BP PLC's Macondo well. The report, commissioned by federal investigators, found that the bent, off-center pipe would have required greater force—5,280 pounds per square inch of force—than it normally takes for a ram to shear off the pipe, seal the well and stop an uncontrolled spill.

Crude oil from the Gulf spill seen in a Louisiana marsh last June.

But the rams that were part of the Deepwater Horizon's blowout preventer, which were among the strongest deployed anywhere in the world, were designed to provide only 4,000 pounds per square inch of force.

Cameron International officials have said they believe the report is fundamentally flawed and that blowout preventers "are built to customer specifications and tested to industry standards."

Innovation influenced by the Deepwater Horizon disaster extends beyond blowout prevention. Bornemann Pumps, a German company, has devised a kind of underwater vacuum that uses a high-capacity pump to siphon oil and gas from the leak source. The company contends the "subsea collection system," still under development, is a better way to contain a spill than skimming oil from the sea's surface or breaking down oil molecules with chemical dispersants.

The system can handle up to 300,000 barrels of oil or its equivalent in gas a day, Bornemann says, and the highest-capacity version could retail for roughly $1 million. At its peak, BP's Gulf well leaked more than 60,000 barrels a day into the water.

Even those who defended the industry's technological prowess in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon disaster have found room for improvement.

Benton Baugh, president of Houston-based manufacturer Radoil Inc., testified before Congress last June that existing subsea safety technology was "completely adequate" to protect drillers and the environment.

But a year later, Mr. Baugh has developed no fewer than 11 products he bills as postspill upgrades. Most significant, he said, was a new design for a "drill collar," the section of thick pipe that sits above the drill bit and weighs it down with 10,000 pounds of metal.

Few shear rams are capable of slicing through a drill collar, which have thick carbon-alloy cores—so Mr. Baugh created a collar with a lighter lead core. "It shears like butter," he said.

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