Kate Mackenzie Why not drill the relief wells first?

The Hill reports that one congressman wants to make it compulsory for relief wells to be drilled alongside producing oil and gas wells, as a failsafe measure:

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) is floating a bill that would force offshore oil producers to drill so-called relief wells along with their exploration wells, a measure aimed at preventing months-long spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico.

“If relief wells had been in place before the BP rig explosion, the gushing oil could have been stopped in weeks instead of months,” Lautenberg said in a statement, calling his plan a “common-sense step to contain damages that come with the inherently dangerous drilling business.”

As the story says, the relief wells are not expected to be completed until July/August – and as we’ve noted, that refers to the drill time rather than the successful ‘bottom kill’.

So, having a relief well handy would be useful, in the event of future blowouts, would it not?

Maybe not.

For the oil industry, undoubtedly, this raises a little problem of cost – it would potentially double the cost of drilling a production well, something that typically runs into tens of millions of dollars in deep waters.

So it was unsurprising that all the oil executives appearing at a Congressional hearing on Tuesday demured when asked by Democrat Mike Doyle whether relief wells should be drilled right from the start.

But Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil chief executive, had another point. Tillerson said:

“Well I would say you just doubled your risk. This is an exploration well so it means you’re drilling in an area that’s not previously been drilled before. If you look at the history of well control problems and blowouts, most of them have occurred on the way down to the objective, not once they reach their objective. They’re caused by shallow gas hazards, they’re caused by unknown pore pressures on the way down to the objective, so if you have two wells going down at the same time it means you have just increase your risk of having a problem on the way down to them.

So what does this mean for the relief wells, then? And about risk management of deepwater drilling more generally?