Steffy: Real-life case shows how to avoid a Gulf disaster

In the response to what could have been another disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, we see an example of how companies ought to react.

Houston-based Apache Corp. recently detected a “kick” on one of its natural gas wells in the Gulf of Mexico, a sign of a potentially dangerous uncontrolled flow of fluid in the well.

The blowout aboard the Deepwater Horizon in 2010 that killed 11 men began with just such a flow of explosive fluid that, tragically, wasn’t recognized.

In this case, though, Apache detected the flow, activated the blowout preventer and evacuated workers from the rig. It reported the incident to federal regulators and brought in Boots & Coots, the well control company, to kill the well. No lives were lost, no injuries were sustained, no environmental damage was detected.

Apache’s response, once the kick was detected, should serve as an example for other operators in the Gulf.

“They did exactly what they should have done,” said Larry McKinney, an expert in risk assessment and executive director of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University Corpus Christi. “One of the outcomes of the Deepwater Horizon is that people get it now that these things are serious. It is an indicator of the heightened sensitivity to anything even remotely indicating the potential for loss of control.”

Other than the kick, the Apache incident had little in common with the Deepwater Horizon accident. The Macondo well that was being drilled at the time of the blowout was in more than 5,000 feet of water. The Apache well was being drilled at a water depth of about 200 feet.

The Deepwater Horizon’s blowout preventer, which was supposed to be the ultimate fail safe against a disaster, rested on the seafloor almost a mile below the rig. In Apache’s case, the device was on the rig itself.

The big picture

While Apache’s response is worth noting, it’s also important not to assign too much symbolism to it.

Does it show that safety has improved in the Gulf? Not necessarily.

It’s a single data point, an anecdote. It doesn’t represent the total picture of drilling safety any more than, say, the Black Elk Energy accident in November that left three men dead and three critically injured. That accident, too, is but a solitary data point.

Taken together, both underscore the need for better data on Gulf drilling operations. Without a central clearinghouse of such incidents, there’s no way to know if either situation – or neither of them – represent a trend.

For example, if we tracked the total number of kicks in the past three years, we would know if the rate was increasing, and companies might become more focused on preventing them.

David Pritchard, a Houston petroleum engineer and drilling safety expert, said all companies need to be more focused on prevention. While Apache’s detection and response procedures clearly worked, he said, the companies should be designing wells to avoid kicks in the first place.

Last resort

Pritchard, who’s also a member of the Deepwater Horizon Study Group, a team of researchers and industry experts assembled by the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California at Berkeley, noted that, based on news accounts of the incident, Apache relied on the blowout preventer to avert catastrophe.

“That is the last-resort layer of protection,” he said. “This industry has a lot to learn about layers of protection.”

Apache Senior Vice President Bob Dye said the company followed its long-standing procedures and that it’s working closely with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement to ensure the well is properly killed.

“Yes, we took a kick, but the equipment worked perfectly,” he said. “We’re following procedures that we’ve had in place all along. I think we’ve handled this situation very well.”

Setting an example

By killing the well, Apache, one of the largest operators in the Gulf, has set an example for other companies. The response underscores both the big risks and high costs of offshore operations, and McKinney said it raises questions of whether smaller companies, with fewer financial resources and properties, could afford the costs of shutting in and abandoning a potentially lucrative well.

“Apache can absorb something like this,” McKinney said. “Whether that translates in some of the smaller companies out there, that’s the concern that’s left.”

Much still remains to be done on quantifying and improving drilling safety in the Gulf, but after so many stories about things that have gone wrong in the Gulf in recent years, we can allow ourselves to take comfort in one incident where the worst didn’t happen.