BP unveils new well capping system

05 04, 2012 by Houston Chronicle

Sitting at a construction yard along Houston's Ship Channel is a 35-foot-tall, 100-ton hunk of steel that its owners hope never to use.

The device is BP's new capping system, designed to halt gushing crude from damaged deep-water wells. It joins other subsea containment systems designed for the Gulf of Mexico and other parts of the world, including Angola and the North Sea.

But unlike systems offered by Helix Well Containment Group and the Marine Well Containment Co., BP's device is engineered so it can be flown to subsea wells around the globe.

The $50 million capping system package - along with an assortment of tools that were designed to go along with it - was completed in August. BP gave reporters a glimpse on Thursday, before planned maintenance and testing.

Richard Morrison, a vice president in charge of BP's global deep-water response, said the oil giant tapped expertise honed during the April 2010 Macondo well blowout to devise the system.

Engineers considered the system ultimately used to contain the Macondo well in creating similar devices. Workers who were part of the subsea response in 2010 told BP what other items needed to be in the toolkit, including heavy-duty wrenches, grinders and debris-clearing equipment.

"There are 1 million plus details to get this out of the shop and into a response," Morrison said.

BP workers also have had to think through possible scenarios for deploying the equipment, including how to position and balance components inside cargo planes and move it at various airports.

Response plans have been developed for all areas where BP is doing deep-water drilling, said Geir Karlsen, BP's containment response system team leader, adding: "There's more to this than sending a kit to a region and then figuring out how to use it."

The system, which is sitting at an ASCO warehouse along the Ship Channel in East Houston, is made up of three main pieces, including a lower section that can sit on the wellhead, or atop other devices at the site.

An upper assembly has two gate valves that can close to block gushing hydrocarbons.And a flow-back system can funnel oil to a vessel at the surface if shutting in a wild well risks devastating damage to the reservoir.

Common elements

The system is built with many standard parts common in the industry. For instance, the lower section is an off-the-shelf Cameron production tree with custom modifications. The upper piece is essentially two gate valves with a connector.

BP is a member of the Marine Well Containment Co., the first line of defense for the Gulf of Mexico. Although BP's new system isn't designed for use in the Gulf, the company said it could serve as a backup there in case other options failed. U.S. regulators now require companies to prove they have the equipment and ability to contain blown-out wells before giving approval to drill in deep water. BP also has another well cap system for use specifically in Angola.

BP estimates it could take up to 10 days to get the system displayed Thursday to the most distant drill sites, such as off the coast of Australia. But for other areas, such as the coast of Brazil, the containment cap could be in place within five to seven days. Chemical dispersants and other tools would be on the first planes, to clear debris and keep oil at bay so ships can safely intervene.

Why it's in Houston

All told, it would take about 35 trailer loads to transport the equipment to five Russian cargo planes and two Boeing B747-200s that could fly it around the world. For now, keeping the equipment in Houston makes sense because of relatively easy access to cargo planes that fly in from Dubai and engineering expertise in the region.

BP plans to put the well cap through emergency tests next year.

Morrison stressed that BP's focus is on preventing another spill.

"You're building all this capability, you're thinking through all the scenarios," he said. "But you're also thinking, well, if the prevention guys do their job, I won't ever have to deploy this."