Emergency drill tests containment equipment in Gulf

Oil industry representatives and regulators are four days into a first-of-its-kind test of how they would respond to a runaway offshore well in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The drill, which began Tuesday morning, tests the Marine Well Containment Company’s equipment for capping blown-out underwater wells and containing the hydrocarbons gushing from them. The exercise represents the first time the equipment and personnel responsible for deploying it have been put through a real-life emergency scenario with regulators looking on.

To recreate emergency conditions, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement effectively told Shell Oil Co., that there had been a blowout at a well in roughly 7,000 feet of water. Shell Oil Co., and MWCC immediately mobilized in response to the pseudo-disaster.

Although the drill tests the ability of the oil industry to arrange an array of support vessels and equipment that would be needed in an emergency, the cornerstone of the exercise is the deployment of MWCC’s capping stack, which can be attached to a wellhead and used to shut off flowing oil if other emergency devices fail to stop the gushing crude. During the drill, workers will deploy the MWCC capping stack to the sea floor, latch it to a test wellhead and pressurize the system.

On Friday, workers began transporting equipment known as a subsea accumulator module, which provides hydraulic fluid to move components in the capping stack. The capping stack is also on its way to the test well, somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico.

On Thursday, safety bureau inspectors watched as workers conducted pressure tests of the capping stack before loading it on to a transport vessel.

The drill also tests communication within the safety bureau, which was established after the 2010 oil spill. BSEE inspectors are aboard the two ships transporting the equipment and agency officials are participating in regular operations briefings.

The exercise responds to a major complaint from environmentalists and offshore drilling foes, who said new containment equipment developed since the 2010 spill had never been put through its paces in real-life emergency conditions. Previously, drills largely have been limited to “tabletop exercises,” where officials on land walk through what would happen in response to a potential disaster.

Bureau Director James Watson has been in Texas during the drill — and using Houston as a launch pad to visit offshore sites as well as officials in the Lone Star State. For instance, he met with state officials in Austin to discuss a variety of regulatory issues, including plans for decommissioning idle offshore oil and gas infrastructure in the Gulf of Mexico.

He also touted career opportunities in the bureau during a meeting with faculty at the University of Texas and visited Exxon Mobil’s Hoover Diana spar production facility in the Gulf.

Watson said in a statement earlier this week that the drill “will help further enhance industry’s preparedness.”

“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,” Watson said.