Feds order deep-water drill of containment systems

05 24, 2012 by Fuel Fix

The Obama administration is ordering a live, deep-water test of emergency equipment designed after the 2010 oil spill to cap and contain crude flowing from damaged subsea wells.

The drill will build on past “tabletop” exercises to evaluate the readiness and effectiveness of the containment systems.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar directed the Marine Well Containment Co. to conduct the live drill this summer. A second consortium, the Helix Well Containment Group, also is expected to conduct a similar deployment exercise in the future.

“One thing Deepwater Horizon taught us is that you must always be ready to respond to the worst-case scenario,” Salazar said. “This exercise is an opportunity to deploy systems, test readiness and train under real-time conditions.”

The move may assuage some critics who say tabletop exercises are inadequate for proving that the equipment really will work under real-life emergency scenarios.

The Obama administration temporarily halted most deep-water exploration after the 2010 spill, and eventually made new drilling contingent on companies proving they could swiftly deploy systems to contain blown-out subsea wells.

BP developed similar devices on the fly while trying to halt crude gushing from its failed Macondo well two years ago.

Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director James Watson said the live tests will bolster confidence in the containment systems.

“We have tested MWCC and capping stacks repeatedly,” Watson said, “but putting them through their paces in the deep waters of the Gulf will give us added confidence that they will be ready to go if needed.”

The centerpiece of the MWCC system is a 30-foot tall capping stack with valves that can be closed to cap a well. In cases where that might be risky — for instance, if capping the well could damage the underground reservoir of oil and gas — the flowing hydrocarbons could be sent to surface vessels using pipes connected to the capping stack.

During the drill in open water, MWCC will lower the capping stack to the seabed by wire instead of by pipe, as happened during the response to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The wire method has the potential to be much faster.

According to the Interior Department, the exercise will test MWCC’s ability to deploy and manage supporting equipment for a variety of tasks, including cleaning up debris on the sea floor and siphoning off oil from a well.