Sheila McNulty Oil majors’ spill response plan worth trying

When the world’s biggest oil companies announced they had come up with a solution to the biggest gap in responding to another accident like BP’s in the Gulf – a way to contain a spill in the deep water – the reaction was generally positive. Several analysts said this was just what the industry had been lacking.

Raoul LeBlanc of PFC Energy, the consultancy, said this in an interview:

This is the beginning of a real solution. The industry and government have excellent, ready answers to make blow-outs even more rare. But response is difficult — as has been amply demonstrated. And a billion dollars tells us that the companies understand that they still have to create, build, and test equipment that will be able to reliably get the job done quickly.

That is what the industry had hoped the response would be. Jim Mulva, ConocoPhillips’ chief executive, called the system a positive and proactive response to get the industry back to work. For the accident has taken a toll on the industry.

The Obama Administration responded to BP’s well explosion and spill by imposing a six-month moratorium on new deepwater drilling that has companies either transferring, or considering transferring, rigs out of the Gulf or pushing back drilling plans into the new year. Bottomlines are being impacted, as indicated by Halliburton this week.

The solution the majors have come up with, first reported by the Financial Times, is to have them develop a spill response vessel, capable of capturing up to 100,000 barrels of crude oil per day, out in the Gulf so it can rapidly respond to a spill. It will be equipped with very high-tech pieces of equipment that can lay on the surface of the ocean to siphon any leaking oil up to the containment vessel.

It does sound familiar – indeed it is has been what BP finally came up with, with the help of the industry and government officials, to contain its own spill. But it has taken BP this long to get that system into place.

Nonetheless, Representative Edward Markey, chairman of the energy and environment subcommittee, is not satisfied. Here is what he said in a statement:

This is only one possible tool in what must be a more robust tool kit for oil companies to respond to spills. This could be a positive step, but it cannot be the industry’s last. While this proposal’s response time could be quicker than this spill, the proposal these companies are submitting is essentially the current BP cap system and plan for 100 percent collection of oil. This current, ad hoc system erected by BP cannot and should not be the final proposal by these companies. While this could be a rapidly-deployed system, the oil companies must do better than BP’s current apparatus with a fresh coat of paint. The oil companies must also invest more in technologies that will prevent fatal blowouts in the first place.

The industry counters that it is already are investing in more safeguards to prevent accidents – even while insisting their practices are, nonetheless, sound. They also say that this system is a step up from the current response equipment now being used on BP’s disaster in the Gulf. From their joint statement:

This system offers key advantages to the current response equipment in that it will be pre-engineered, constructed, tested and ready for rapid deployment in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico. It’s primary objective is to fully contain the oil with no flow to the sea. The system will be flexible and adaptable.

That means it will be made to deal with a variety of conditions out in the Gulf. More from the companies:

It will be responsive to a wide range of potential scenarios, deepwater depths up to 10,000 feet, weather conditions and flow rates exceeding the size and scope of the current spill. Once constructed, the system components will be fully tested to ensure functionality and will be maintained in a state of continuous operational readiness. In the event of a future incident, mobilization to the field will start within days and the system will be fully operational within weeks.

There is no way to completely eliminate risk from anything done in this world. Drilling for hydrocarbons is no different. But this certainly goes a long way toward mitigating the impact of any future accidents.