Emergency well containment drills launched

The federal government Tuesday launched a drill of the oil industry’s readiness to respond to a blown-out deep-water well in the Gulf of Mexico.

The drill focuses on the Marine Well Containment Company’s equipment for capping blown-out underwater wells and containing the hydrocarbons gushing from them. Major oil companies developed the system for use in the Gulf of Mexico, modeling it after equipment that was used at BP’s doomed Macondo well in 2010.

After the Gulf spill, federal regulators mandated that oil companies drilling in U.S. waters to prove they can contain an blown-out underwater well. MWCC is one of two Gulf systems that can satisfy that mandate.

Critics complained the systems were not tested under emergency scenarios and there was no guarantee they could work in the face of a potential catastrophe.

“This exercise will help further enhance industry’s preparedness by deploying one important component of their well control capabilities to the sea floor,” said Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement Director Jim Watson in a statement. “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.”

Federal regulators previously announced they would be conducting the drill, but it was otherwise unscheduled. To recreate an emergency scenario, BSEE effectively told an oil company that has contracted with MWCC that there had been a blowout — albeit a fake one — at a well in roughly 7,000 feet of water. Over the next week or more, regulators will watch as MWCC mobilizes and responds to the pseudo-disaster in conjunction with that operator, Shell Oil Co.

During the drill, workers will deploy the MWCC capping stack to the sea floor, latch it to a test wellhead and pressurize the system. Other aspects of the exercise are meant to test an operator’s ability to arrange an array of support vessels and equipment that would be needed to contain a well, including devices for removing debris at the well site and systems for collecting oil.