Oil spill containment system is tested in the Gulf of Mexico

07 25, 2012 by The Times-Picayune

The first deep-sea test of a state-of-the-art containment system for stopping an oil spill akin to BP's catastrophic 2010 spill began on Tuesday, regulators said. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said the Houston-based Marine Well Containment Company was to move a capping stack system it has developed onto a ship and carry it out to where a test wellhead has been placed on the bottom of the Gulf. The stack will be lowered by wires onto the test wellhead sitting 7,000 feet below the surface of the Gulf.

"Testing this equipment in real-time conditions and ultra-deep water depths will help ensure that the MWCC is ready and able to respond in a moment's notice should the need arise," said BSEE Director Jim Watson.

BSEE staff -- including inspectors, engineers and spill response experts -- planned to monitor the drill and see firsthand how it is conducted, regulators said.

The capping stack is similar to the one BP used to stop the flow of oil from its out-of-control well in July 2010. That stack finally closed the well after 85 days of leaking oil. The BP spill, which caused more than 200 million gallons of oil to leak out, exposed the oil industry's inability to stop a deep-sea spill quickly.

Tougher drilling rules passed after the BP spill required oil companies to prove they can control a blowout similar to the April 20, 2010, incident at the Macondo well where 11 workers were killed in explosions that sank the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon.

After the spill, several large oil companies set up the Marine Well Containment Company to prove the industry could control a deep-sea oil spill. It was a condition the industry had to meet before regulators would begin re-issuing deep-water drilling permits. Regulators began issuing permits in early 2011.

In May, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said he wanted MWCC to conduct a live drill to see how ready the oil industry was to respond to a worst-case scenario.

On Tuesday, Chauntra Rideaux, a BSEE spokeswoman, said the location of the test wellhead could not be disclosed immediately. She said doing so might undermine the test. She added that the agency planned to release more details about the exercise at a later date. An oil company was involved in the test too, but Rideaux said the agency could not yet release the name of the company.

Once the containment system is in place, regulators say the wellhead and capping stack will be pressurized to see how they handle conditions that would be experienced in the event of a real oil spill. Rideaux said there would be no release of fluids in the exercise.

This new capping stack is capable of containing up to 4.2 million gallons of oil and 200 million cubic feet of natural gas a day, according to MWCC.

There are some differences between the stack used in the BP spill and this new one.

BP's out-of-control well was 5,000 feet deep and this test wellhead is even deeper at 7,000 feet. Also, this stack is capable of containing a higher flow of oil than what gushed out of the Macondo well. BP lowered its stack with pipes and this one will be dropped using wires. Regulators said it might be faster to use wires.