Salazar orders first deepwater gulf oil containment exercise

US Interior Sec. Ken Salazar directed Marine Well Containment Co., one of two consortiums formed following the 2010 Macondo deepwater well’s oil spill, to conduct a live drill this summer deploying critical well control equipment in the Gulf of Mexico.

The exercise will test MWCC’s capacity to quickly mobilize a capping stack similar to the one that ultimately contained the Macondo well’s flow from the consortium’s onshore base to the gulf’s deepwater seabed, Salazar said. The US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which tests capping stacks on the surface as part of its responsibilities to oversee tougher regulations implemented after the Macondo incident, will oversee this first exercise, he said.

“Our safety reforms are designed to reduce the chances that a capping stack would ever be needed again, but one thing [the Macondo well spill] taught us is that you must always be ready to respond to the worst-case scenario,” Salazar said.

BSEE said the demonstration will involve the field deployment and testing of a capping stack as part of a larger scenario that will also test an operator’s ability to obtain and schedule the deployment of the supporting systems necessary for successful containment—including debris-removal equipment and oil collection devices, such as top hats.

The capping stack will be lowered to the seabed by wire, a technique that offers the potential to be significantly faster than the deployment via pipe that occurred during the Macondo well response, it added. BSEE said it also will analyze the results from tests conducted on the sea floor.

Follows earlier tests

BSEE Director James A. Watson said the DOI agency has tested MWCC and capping stacks repeatedly, “but putting them through their paces in the deep waters of the gulf will give us added confidence that they will be ready to go if needed.”

Helix Well Containment Group—the other consortium that provides gulf oil and gas operators contract access to well containment equipment—will conduct a similar exercise in the future, Salazar said.

BSEE officials also participated on May 24 in an all-day table top exercise designed to simulate the response to a well blowout in the Chukchi Sea. The exercise, planned over the past several months, included representatives from the US Coast Guard, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the State of Alaska, the North Slope Borough, and Shell Exploration & Production Co., which has requested approval to conduct exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean this summer, the agency said.

“This exercise allowed us to do a large-scale test of how the federal government and industry would carry out many of the key components of a response,” Watson said. “It also tested the ability to get crucial data in real time to officials in Washington, DC.”

BSEE said it will conduct a series of planned and unannounced exercises and inspections throughout the year to test industry’s ability to meet the conditions of their oil spill response plans and effectively respond to a potential spill in the Arctic, in the event that exploratory drilling activities are approved. The bureau will also continue to participate in joint exercises, such as yesterday’s event, to evaluate and improve communication and coordination among federal and state partners and the company.

Exercise’s details

The table top scenario began on the second day of a simulated response to a subsea blowout with a 25,000 b/d flow rate, according to BSEE. Exercise participants completed an Incident Action Plan outlining the details of the release, coordinated response efforts among participating agencies, developed response objectives, and identified response assets.

The Alaska Regional Response Team worked with participants on the approval and use of dispersants and in-situ burning during the simulated response. DOI’s Emergency Operations Center was used to notify key personnel in Washington of the exercise’s progress, and provided real-time data feeds from Anchorage, the agency said.

“While this exercise gives us confidence in the preparedness levels of our federal, state, and local partners, and Shell, it is only one piece of the spill response puzzle,” Watson said. “We will be repeatedly testing Shell’s equipment and their ability to respond, including through field deployments and unannounced drills. We will hold Shell accountable to its plans, and ensure that all personnel and equipment are positioned and ready before any proposed drilling activities could proceed.”

BSEE noted that it approved Shell’s oil spill response plans for both the Beaufort and Chukchi seas, but the company still must seek and obtain approval from BSEE for well-specific drilling permits prior to commencing operations, and in-water testing and deployment of the capping stack and containment system must occur prior to the approval of drilling permits.

It said on-water exercises and drills also will be conducted and on-site inspections of oil spill response equipment will be required throughout the proposed drilling operation. BSEE said it would use its authority to conduct a variety of equipment inspections and deployment exercises, some of which may be unannounced, to validate the tactics, logistics, resource availability, and personnel proficiency identified and relied on in the approved oil spill response plans.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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