Government, industry examine oil spill preparedness

Paula Dittrick
OGJ Senior Staff Writer

HOUSTON, Sept. 23 -- The oil and gas industry developed containment technology to deal with an oil spill in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, and new collaboration between industry and the US government is needed to assure an adequate response system in the future, speakers agreed at a meeting in Washington, DC.

Regulators, government scientists, and industry executives met at a forum hosted by the departments of the Interior and Energy. An Apr. 20 blowout of the Macondo oil and gas well on Mississippi Canyon Block 252 resulted in a massive spill in the gulf. BP PLC operated the Macondo well.

The blowout caused an explosion and fire on Transocean Ltd.’s Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible, killing 11 people. The Deepwater Horizon sank on Apr. 22.

Energy Sec. Steven Chu said he sees the need for a redesign effort focused on diagnostic tools, warning systems, instrumentation and sensors, and other equipment to improve the safety of offshore drilling.

Engineers and scientists spent time, especially early in the response efforts, trying to figure out the state of valves in the failed Deepwater Horizon BOP, he said.

“A reengineering job could have saved 10 days of angst,” Chu said. “This is an industrywide issue…. There was no indicator on the BOP that said what’s the condition of all the valves.” Chu advised the oil and gas industry to look toward the weapons industry and the aviation industry for ideas. “One doesn’t really have to reinvent a lot of things.”

Spill preparedness
Interior Sec. Ken Salazar said efforts to kill the Macondo well involved “the best and brightest minds” from across industry and government. “It required trial and error where there was little room for error,” he said.

“Neither industry or the government had the preparedness to deal with the disaster in the gulf,” Salazar said.

ExxonMobil Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson said government and industry need to develop more-effective ways to work together. He said industry is dedicated to operational safety and integrity.

“There is a need to enhance preparedness,” Tillerson said. ExxonMobil is operator of the Marine Well Containment Co. (MWCC), a nonprofit joint venture that is building an equipment inventory and a rapid response system for future gulf oil spills (OGJ Online, July 21, 2010).

ExxonMobil, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell PLC pooled $1 billion to form MWCC. BP joined MWCC and agreed to make its underwater well containment equipment available to all oil and gas companies operating in the gulf (OGJ Online, Sept. 20, 2010).

National Incident Commander and retired US Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen said the government and industry need to jointly design containment systems that can be integrated with the way the oil is produced in the gulf.

Floating production, storage, and offloading vessels along with floating risers and shuttle tankers had to be brought from other countries to help divert oil from spilling into the gulf. This equipment had to be obtained from elsewhere to deal with the Maconodo spill because oil production in the gulf typically is delivered to shore by pipelines.

“We are going to be working in various depths,” Allen said of gulf drilling efforts. “We need to have flexibility in response systems that can adjust to different water depths.”

Allen also called for renewed investments in oil spill research and development efforts, adding that industry and the government allowed investments in oil spill research to wither years after the Exxon Valdez tanker ran aground in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989.

He was involved in setting up procedures and an inventory of oil spill equipment as required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.

“We basically got complete amnesia about R&D—to really fund it and stay ahead at the same time that deepwater drilling” technology progressed, Allen said.

BP’s experience
Andrew Inglis, chief executive of BP Exploration & Production, said containing the Macondo blowout presented “a huge challenge” even though BP had spill response plans in place that conformed to regulatory requirements.

“However, no one anticipated an event where this particular series of mechanical and human failures would occur,” Inglis said. “The Macondo well is at a water depth of 5,067 ft. This is by no means the deepest water depth that has been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico, but it did pose a unique set of logistical and operational challenges—temperatures are less than 40° F., and seafloor pressures greater than 2,200 psi. At these pressures and temperatures, methane gas flowing from the well was transformed into ice-like crystals known as hydrates, which complicated containment efforts.”

He said a 5,000-ft riser connecting the well to the Deepwater Horizon fell to the seabed and was bent and breached in several locations.

“The first challenge in the early days of the response was to survey the status of this equipment and locate the source of the oil and gas flowing into the sea,” Inglis said.

He said industry has now assembled subsea containment equipment that it did not have in place for the gulf on Apr. 20. Inglis said industry also has experience in using these key elements, which include:

• An inventory of immediately deployable open and closed containment systems proven at depth with associated operating procedures.

• Proven systems for processing and transporting contained oil including FPSOs, free-standing risers, and flexible subsea flowlines. This includes equipment to reduce downtime in the event of hurricanes.

• Demonstrated methods to mitigate hydrate formation.

• Techniques for system diagnostics and advanced surveillance (for instance, digital radiography at depth).

• Plans and organizational models for source containment.

• Enhanced technologies and procedures to drill deepwater relief wells.

Contact Paula Dittrick at paulad@ogjonline.com.

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