2018 Science, Technology and Environment

Barbara G. Kutchko, Ph.D.

Helped rewrite standards for the use of foamed cement in oil wells, to prevent blowouts and damaging oil spills and to better protect workers and the environment

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing 11 people and releasing more than 130 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The massive spill devastated marine life and fouled 1,100 miles of shoreline along five states, in what became the largest oil spill in U.S. history.

Investigators from government and industry found that failure of the oil well’s foamed cement lining played a major factor in the blowout.

In the aftermath of the disaster, and in collaboration with the American Petroleum Institute, Barbara Kutchko of the Department of Energy helped rewrite industry standards for foamed cement used to stabilize oil wells, which has led to safer drilling practices and lowered the risk of blowouts.

“We have a much better-educated industry based on these recommended procedures,” said Roy Long, a technology manager at DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory. “Because of Barbara’s studies, the guidelines are based on scientific evidence and are significantly improved.”

At the time of the incident, the industry was using the petroleum institute’s recommended practices as standard guidance—practices the Deepwater Horizon operators failed to meet.

But there was no real-world data to support those guidelines. The recommended practices were developed without any information about how lab-generated cement might vary from cement generated at a drilling site, which is affected by the environment.

Kutchko’s groundbreaking research introduced better science to the industry, and the standard guidance the petroleum institute issues now will be based on her work.

“Her study reinforces and gives us confidence in the foamed cement application for the oil field industry,” said Gunnar DeBruijn, a cement specialist with oil-field company Schlumberger. 

Gathering the data was anything but simple and straightforward, said Kutchko, a self-described lab rat with a background in geology and engineering. When she was asked to work with the Department of Justice in their investigation of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, she discovered there was no research data for the cement standard. She recognized that to develop the data, she would need the cooperation of various players in the oil and drilling industries. 

When she approached the American Petroleum Institute about collaborating on a study and helping to fund it, she was entering uncharted waters. 

Historically, there had been little trust between the oil industry and government. On top of that, Kutchko was unknown in either the cement or oil industry.

She admits to feeling uneasy when she walked into the petroleum institute for the first time. “I had to convince them to invest their time and money in me and this idea I had,” she said. 

A lot was at stake. Ninety percent of the wells in the Gulf of Mexico use foamed cement and now the industry needed to demonstrate it had the ability to keep the wells safe. 

In working with the industry, her qualities as a leader were evident, according to David Alman, acting executive director of research and innovation at the National Energy Technology Laboratory. She showed the ability to “work with a wide variety of stakeholders and bring science solutions to problems,” he said.

As part of the collaboration, industry sources supplied Kutchko with cement samples from the field. Using an Energy Department CT scanner, which was more powerful than scanners available to the industry, she provided detailed comparisons between lab-generated samples and samples from the drill sites. 

“This was the first time they had actually used that particular CT scanner for this sort of thing, and that is where she really shined,” Long said. “She was innovative in making sense out of everything.”

As a result, the petroleum institute is revising its standard, and the industry is continuing to work with Kutchko to create a public database of this information so industry providers can access it easily. While the primary use for the new cement standard is offshore, it increasingly is being used in drilling operations on land.

“This collaboration,” Long said, “has been very helpful for both the government to better understand what industry is doing and for industry to learn how they can improve their operations.”

Industry seems to agree. Kutchko’s project won several industry awards and was featured on the cover of the Journal of Petroleum Technology, the flagship trade magazine for the oil and gas industry.

“This is why a lot of us go into science and work where we work,” Kutchko said. “We are making a difference. This is data being used right now to improve processes, save money and save lives.”