Feds launch test of Helix offshore spill containment system

In deep Gulf of Mexico waters 267 miles from Houston on Tuesday, federal regulators and the oil industry launched a drill meant to test whether emergency equipment and first responders are ready to tackle an out-of-control subsea well.

Operating out of a Houston command center, the exercise focuses on equipment owned and operated by the Helix Well Containment Group, following a similar deployment drill with rival Marine Well Containment Co., last year.

Inspired by the equipment finally used to arrest the 2010 Gulf oil spill, Helix’s containment system is meant to cap a blown-out underwater well and halt the gushing flow of hydrocarbons. After the Gulf spill, federal regulators mandated that oil companies must prove they have immediate access to above- and below-sea resources that can contain a blowout before getting approval to drill in deep U.S. waters.

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Over the course of several days, regulators will put Helix’s system through an emergency scenario in real-life conditions at a Noble Energy test well located 124 miles from Grand Isle, La. While workers deploy the equipment in the Gulf of Mexico with regulators looking on, government and industry officials will be huddled at the command center in Houston.

Helix is expected to lower its capping stack through some 5,047 feet of water to the sea floor by wire, then latch it to a test wellhead and pressurize the system.

But the challenge isn’t just sending a capping stack down to the wellhead. Regulators also will be scrutinizing Noble’s ability to arrange and manage an array of support vessels, staff and equipment that would be needed in an emergency.

Regulators at the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which ordered the exercise, say it can spotlight potential problems long before an emergency.

“These types of exercises give us an opportunity to see how the equipment is deployed in real-world conditions and to learn lessons that can be shared across industry to protect the environment and improve the safety of offshore operations,” said bureau director James Watson.

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For instance, during last year’s test, MWCC and 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 during last year’s drill, workers decided to use remote operated vehicles to operate the device and close its valves instead.