MWCC’s capping stack is ready for prime time

If BP’s Macondo well blowout happened today, oil companies say they would be far better prepared to respond than they were a year ago.

One reason why they are so confident sits in an out-of-the-way fabrication yard in northwest Houston.

The Marine Well Containment Co.’s $1 billion spill-containment system is now ready to go, with the ability to collect up to 60,000 barrels a day of oil from a leaking well in 8,000 feet of water.

On Friday morning, the company allowed reporters for the first time to get an up-close look at the centerpiece of the system, a giant well-capping stack.

Standing 30 feet tall and weighing 100 tons, the capping stack is designed to be lowered on top of a runaway well, with the goal of either shutting it in or, if that can’t be done safely, collecting and routing the oil to ships above.

In that way, it is very similar to the piece of equipment that ultimately halted the oil gushing from Macondo on July 15 – but not before it bled more than 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over 87 days.

Marty Massey, CEO of the Marine Well Containment Co., or MWCC, said by contrast its new system can be trucked and shipped to an offshore well “in a matter of days.”

“The bottom line in all of this is the Marine Well Containment Co. is prepared and ready to go,” Massey told reporters in a briefing at a Trendsetter Engineering yard, where the capping stack was developed and will be stored.

The capping stack took more than two months to build, and drew heavily on lessons from the frenzied Macondo well-plugging effort. It is flexible enough to be installed atop a well’s blowout preventer, the towering stack of shut-off valves that sits on a well head on the sea floor, or directly on a well head if the BOP stack is damaged.

Once in place, a set of well-sealing rams are very slowly closed by dextrous robot submarines. Then, four other outlet points are closed off, keeping a close eye on pressure readings throughout. At that point, the well could either be deemed shut in or the operator might decide pressures were too high and choose to produce the oil through the outlet points.

As a condition of winning new permits to drill in the deep-water Gulf of Mexico, the Interior Department now requires oil companies to prove they have access to spill-containment equipment, built to withstand even worst-case blowout scenarios.

So far, two systems have emerged that pass the test, one by MWCC and another by Houston’s Helix Energy Solutions.

The Helix system, also to operate in 8,000 feet of water and collect 55,000 barrels of oil per day, incorporates equipment actually used in plugging the Macondo well.

Helix CEO Owen Kratz said in an interview last week his company’s system could be able to contain a Macondo-like well in 10 to 17 days, versus the nearly 90 days crews took to stop Macondo.

“We’re working on getting that done,” Kratz said. “That’s a matter not of technology but of refining the communications and procedures to make it happen a little more smoothly. We’re being a little conservative at the 10 to 17 days.”

Both MWCC and Helix are also developing higher-capacity systems that can operate in deeper water depths.

The MWCC is a non-profit company formed in July by Exxon Mobil, Chevron Corp., Shell and ConocoPhillips, each of which pledged $250 million to develop a purpose-built system for the Gulf.

Since then, six more oil companies have joined as members: BP, Apache Corp., Statoil, BHP Billiton, Hess Corp. and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. Massey said all 10 members hold an equal stake and are dividing the initial $1 billion outlay to build the system. But non-member companies may also pay a fee to use the system.

“We’re open to all Gulf of Mexico operators,” he said.

Since the Deepwater Horizon disaster almost a year ago, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has awarded just 10 permits for deep-water projects that had been halted by a five-month Gulf drilling ban imposed after the oil spill. Four of the approved projects have said they would use the MWCC system to meet spill-fighting requirements, while the rest chose to use Helix.