Gulf blowout: What if it happens again?

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by Dave Fehling / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on April 7, 2011 at 12:44 AM

Updated Thursday, Apr 7 at 12:45 AM

HOUSTON -- It happened one year ago this month: the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Now, the KHOU 11 News I-Team looks at what no one wants to think about: What if it happened again?

In those first days after the explosion one year ago, BP thought the blowout might not even be a threat to the Gulf.

"If there is any pollution at the moment we believe it is minor pollution," said David Rainey , a BP Vice President, speaking to reporters on April 21, 2010.

But the initial optimism was quickly proven wrong.

Eventually, with oil washing up on shore, there’d even be live video that showed crude gushing from the well 5,000 feet under the surface of the Gulf.

With no way to quickly stop it, there was an even scarier possibility.
What about the 33 other deepwater drilling operations that were still active when the BP well blew out?

"What happens if you're drilling and this happens again at a second place? Do you have anything to stop it? The answer was no," said John Kingston, Director of Oil at Platts, the leading provider of energy information worldwide.

There was virtually nothing. There was no emergency equipment kept on hand to deal with a blowout as big as BP was experiencing.

So in May of last year, the White House stepped in, shutting down the 33 deepwater drilling sites in the Gulf of Mexico. To ever resume drilling, the oil industry had to show the government it could stop a blowout and stop it fast.

And now, the industry says it can.

"This is our well cap," said Cameron Wallace, as he stood next to a giant set of pipe and valves two stories tall.

Wallace is with a Houston drilling service company called Helix. At an assembly facility in northwest Houston, the company has built what it hopes would bring a speedy end to the next major off-shore blowout.

"The big difference…is planning," said Wallace, a Helix spokesman.

The well cap is part of what the company calls the Helix Fast Response System. It’s funded by a group of smaller drilling companies. The mega oil companies have also come up with their own version of such a system. It’s called the Marine Well Containment Company and is funded by companies including Exxon, ConocoPhillips, and yes, BP.

"We have a lot more equipment ready to respond," said Majid Al-Sharif, a Helix engineered who designed the system.

A Helix video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hU2mehDtmOA) shows how ships will load up in Texas, head out to the spill, then lower the well cap onto the blowout.

How long utill it stops the gusher?

"In approximately 10 days," said Cameron.

That’s a lot better than the three months it took to cap the BP blowout.

So it all sounds good, but given what happened with the BP blowout, can the industry be trusted when it says if there ever is a next time, it'll be different?

"Time will tell if it'll work," said John Kingston, with Platts.

Kingston told KHOU 11 News that so far, no one has found any great faults in the blow-out response plans.

"But they were deployed and completed rather quickly," he points out.

What could go wrong?

So far, these systems are good to only 8,000 feet, but the industry has been going into deeper water than that. And there's a limit to the well pressure the caps can handle.

“The risk will never be zero,” said drilling equipment inventor Benton Baugh, who’s nationally known for his expertise and straight talk; he testified before Congress about the blowout.

Baugh says while there's always some risk, it's a new day since the BP catastrophe.

"You're seeing a very fundamental change in what people are recognizing and assessing risk and doing things," Baugh said.

A vote of confidence for the blowout response plans has come from the U.S. Department of Interior which considered the plans when it decided earlier this year to let drilling resume in the deep waters of the Gulf.

One of the latest permits it issued to drill is for a spot off the Texas coast line, just 200 miles south of Texas City. The water there is 7,134 feet deep. That’s within the 8,000 foot limit for the new emergency well caps. But not by much.

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