Photo of PSA's drilling team

Knowing a lot about a bit

Broad expertise and long experience are important tools for the PSA’s specialists in drilling and well technology when they have to supervise a whole industry.

Drilling and well services occupy a key place throughout the life cycle of a field. This is a very wide-ranging area, with many different disciplines, and the PSA must match that spread.

Able specialists with long and varied experience are needed to check that the industry operates prudently. And Monica Ovesen, discipline manager for drilling and well technology, has no hesitation in saying that these people are in place.

“Our 18 specialists have spent a total of 527 years in the oil industry, which averages out as an amazing 29.3 years each,” she says. “They’ve all worked offshore, and many have long experience from operations.

“But we still give priority to professional development, and devote a lot of our available time to important projects, courses, conferences and further education. Staying updated is essential.”

The 18 are spread around the PSA’s various teams for supervising operators, contractors and mobile units, where they work on audits, investigations and consent applications.

They otherwise contribute their expertise to regulatory development, standardisation, consideration of PDOs, impact assessments and the like.

“The breadth of experience we have in the team is very useful when difficult decisions need to be taken,” Ovesen observes.

Learning from incidents is crucial for the PSA. That also applies in drilling, which involves a substantial major accident potential and has given rise to a number of serious incidents.

Considerable resources have been devoted by the drilling team in recent years to summarising and sharing experience from challenging events on the NCS.

Examples include the undersea gas blowout on Snorre A in 2004 and the long-lasting well problem which affected the Gullfaks C platform in 2010.

The major Montara incident off Australia in 2009 and the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico the following year were also the subject of a far-reaching PSA project.

Headed by Hilde-Karin Østnes in the drilling and well technology team, this delivered its final report in 2014 after almost four years of detailed analyses of the two accidents.

“We quickly appreciated the need to learn from them, and established the project soon after the US incident,” says Ovesen. “Both are relevant for the overall safety approach.

“In particular, they offered a large number of lessons in the drilling sector, and we’re still working to incorporate these in operations on the NCS.

“Given what we know, we’re now working with the industry on a project about robust well design. We also want to establish good emergency response to kill possible blowouts as fast as possible.

“Key points here are choice of drilling unit, the availability of rigs and necessary equipment to handle an incident, and coordination of drilling operations. That last point is not least relevant for the Barents Sea.”

“The breadth of experience we have in the team is very useful when difficult decisions need to be taken.”

Another area which has been high on the PSA’s agenda in recent years is plugging and abandonment of wells. Particular efforts have been made to get the industry to deal with wells which have been temporarily abandoned for a number of years.

The regulations in this area were tightened up from 1 January. New exploration wells can no longer be temporarily abandoned for more than two years.

In addition, the reservoir section of a production well must be permanently plugged within three years unless it is being continuously monitored.

“The companies now acknowledge to a greater extent that the quickest possible plugging can offer benefits,” says PSA principal engineer Johnny Gundersen, a drilling expert.

One of the challenges in getting wells plugged has been the lack of rigs. Conditions in this market have now reversed, raising the question of whether the government should command the industry to devote spare capacity to plugging.

“We encourage permanent plugging, but don’t order it,” says Gundersen. “We have no authority under the regulations to do that, unless a well poses big integrity problems.

“We nevertheless expect the companies to comply with the regulations, and either plug or re-establish barriers in those wells which don’t meet the regulatory requirements.”

He says it might appear that the companies have only realised in recent years how substantial the scale of future plugging operations will be.

“So it’s good that a number of players are developing new and more effective methods for such jobs, including several projects under the auspices of the Research Council of Norway.

“The industry must also take a closer look at how it can document that barriers intended to prevent leaks are sufficiently robust. Challenges exist here which need to be overcome.”

Gundersen urges the companies to collaborate on new equipment and plugging methods. “They all face the same challenges even if the plugging wave doesn’t hit them all at the same time.

“Their wells must be plugged some time or another, so they have a lot to gain from working together.”

When Ovesen looks into the crystal ball for her discipline, she sees an entirely automated drill floor. Having people involved in manual operations there increases the risk of incidents.

“Nor will automated operations be highly significant for safety alone. They’re also more cost-effective because they can be repeated exactly.”

She is looking forward to trials with new concepts on test rigs in Stavanger during 2015 – and admits that constant technical progress helps to make her job both interesting and rewarding.

“It’s important that the PSA follows up new drilling methods, participates in heavyweight technical projects and works constantly to keep up professionally with the industry,” she says.

“For us who work here, it means a lot to be able to contribute to improved safety on the NCS.”