Feds deem emergency well containment drill a success

The first-ever full-scale test of how the oil industry and federal regulators would respond to a runaway offshore well completed Monday in the Gulf of Mexico, with government officials deeming the week-long drill a success.

The exercise, which began July 24, tested the Marine Well Containment Company’s equipment for capping blown-out underwater wells and containing the hydrocarbons gushing from them. The exercise represented the first time the equipment and personnel responsible for deploying it have been put through a real-life emergency scenario with regulators looking on.

Although the drill tested 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 was the deployment of MWCC’s 30-foot-tall, 100-ton 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 successfully deployed the MWCC capping stack to the sea floor, latched it to a test wellhead and pressurized the system.

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement confirmed that the capping stack system passed a pressurization test under the scenario officials created.

BSEE Director James Watson said the exercise would “spur the industry to think through all of the processes and identify problems in an environment in which we can all learn and improve.”

The Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 revealed the oil industry was unprepared to contain an underwater gusher. It took 87 days to stop oil from flowing from BP’s failed Macondo well, after initial attempts at capping the well did not work. The MWCC containment system is modeled after the equipment that finally did work to staunch the Macondo well flow.

“If the industry should ever have to deploy this equipment in a real response, we will all be much better prepared as a result of this exercise,” Watson said in a statement.

According to the Interior Department, bureau engineers, inspectors and oil spill response specialists are still evaluating aspects of the deployment, including any lessons learned about preparation for potential emergencies.

For instance, during the test, MWCC and federal regulators realized they should have so-called “mud mats” on hand to ensure a stable platform for heavy equipment that otherwise might sink into soft seabed. Without mud mats available during the exercise, workers instead resorted to a workaround to stabilize heavy equipment known as a subsea accumulator skid that provides hydraulic fluid needed to close valves and rams on the capping stack to successfully contain an underwater well.

As a solution, workers decided to use remote operated vehicles to operate the device and close its valves instead.

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 regulators had announced their plans for a drill earlier this year, the exact date and scenario was a surprise.

The exercise responded 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 tests,” where officials on land walk through what would happen in response to a potential disaster.