Spill containment only for the Gulf of Mexico?

A year after the Macondo disaster, the industry has pulled together in the US and built not one, but two spill containment systems. These systems are really state-of-the-art and aimed at containing a massive spill in the deep water.

The first one, the Containment Response System, cost $1bn and is designed to be trucked to anywhere along the Gulf of Mexico, loaded onto a vessel, shipped out to a drill site and dispatched under water to contain oil spilling from a runaway well.

The system, complete with capture vessels, was developed by ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Chevron and ConocoPhillips. It took several months to build and testing has shown it can operate in 8,000 feet of water, capturing 60,000 barrels of fluid per day at pressures of 15,000 pounds per square inch. A more comprehensive system, which can operate in 10,000 feet of water, and capture 100,000 barrels of fluid a day, will be available by the middle of next year.

A competing system built by the Helix Well Containment Group, a consortium of 24 deepwater operators in the gulf, is able to contain spills in 8,000 feet of water and capture and process 55,000 barrels of oil per day in pressures of 15,000 psi. The system will be able to handle spills at depths of 10,000 feet by this summer.

The question is why the Gulf of Mexico now has two of these and no other jurisdictions have announced plans to get one of their own. Deepwater drilling is taking place everywhere from Africa to Latin America. And another accident on the scale of Macondo would undermine the efforts the industry has made to convince regulators they are responsible enough to continue drilling in deep waters.

I put the question to Marty Massey, chief executive of the Marine Well Containment Company, the joint venture that built and is maintaining the Containment Response System, and he said all he knows is that his mandate is to focus on the Gulf of Mexico.

So I went to Exxon, the leader of the joint venture. Cynthia Bergman White, Exxon spokeswoman, said

We are supporting an industry taskforce under the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers to assess global needs and solutions for well capping and containment components or systems.

Nothing very concrete there. It seems to me that if Exxon’s new system is truly as important and capable as the industry is making it out to be, perhaps it would make sense to build multiple ones for other deepwater markets. It would be a pity if it took an accident in one of those other markets to get the industry moving once more.

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