Big Oil proves it can contain the next deepwater well blowout

 deepwater oil leak

In the wake of BP’s Macondo deepwater well disaster in 2010, fellow Big Oil companies with deepwater commitments in the Gulf of Mexico decided to get their act together, for the sake of the industry.

Recognizing the need to be better prepared in the event an operator lost control and containment of a well, in July 2010 ExxonMobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and Shell committed to providing a new system capable of capturing and containing some 100,000 barrels of oil in water depths of 10,000 feet. They formed the Marine Well Containment Company (MWCC), a $1 billion not-for-profit independent company, based in Houston, to design and manufacture a new generation of well containment equipment and technology.

Last week the company completed its first full-scale test of how the oil industry and federal regulators would respond to a runaway offshore well in the Gulf of Mexico. It was the first time regulators got to see the equipment and personnel responsible for deploying in a real time emergency scenario. Federal government officials deemed the week-long drilling exercise to be successful.

The key factor in the exercise was the deployment of MWCC’s 30-foot-tall, 100-ton capping mechanism, which can be attached to a wellhead and used to shut off flowing oil in the event that other emergency measures failed.

During the drill, workers successfully deployed the MWCC capping stack to the sea floor, secured it to a test wellhead, and pressurized the system. According to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, the capping stack system passed the pressurization test required by the officials monitoring the test.

When the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster happened in 2010 it took the oil industry 87 days to stop oil from flowing from the broken riser at the Macondo well. The MWCC containment system is modeled after the equipment that finally did work to staunch the Macondo well flow.

While engineers, government inspectors, and oil spill response specialists are still evaluating the results of the recent test, MWCC officials and federal authorities are expressing confidence that the industry can quickly contain a future blowout.

MWCC, which has announced that a number of expanded containment system components will be available in 2012 with other components arriving in 2013, is promising to keep upgrading its well containment technology to keep pace with the growing demand of deepwater exploration and production in the Gulf.

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Photo by Florida Fish and Wildlife used under a Creative Commons license.

Stuart Hampton

British editorial veteran Stuart Hampton has been covering oil and gas companies for Hoover's since the Neogene-Quaternary period. Well, actually, since the early 1990s. For the best overview of the oil industry and its history he recommends Daniel Yergin's "The Prize." You can also follow Stuart on Twitter.

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