Helix Well Containment GroupThe Helix Well Containment Group’s new deepwater well capping stack, unveiled Tuesday at the Offshore Technology Conference in Houston. The new capping stack can handle pressures of up to 15,000 pounds per square inch, an improvement over the 10,000 psi model Helix completed in February.
By David Hammer The Times-Picayune
The Helix Well Containment Group is a cooperative effort of 24 Gulf oil companies. They have banded together and invested in spill-response technology to convince the federal government that they could return to drilling in the deep sea and stop a leak like last year’s BP disaster, in which the massive device known as a blowout preventer failed to close in the well.
Helix Well Containment Group’s participating companies succeeded in getting several new wells approved in recent months, mostly because they had access to the consortium’s capping stack, something like a mini-blowout preventer that could attach to the top of a failed blowout preventer and block hydrocarbons flowing through it at pressures of up to 10,000 pounds per square inch.
At the annual Offshore Technology Conference in Houston today, Helix Well Containment Group unveiled a second capping stack model, which promises to safely shut in flows of up to 15,000 psi. That’s a significant increase in capabilities that the industry hopes can pave the way to deeper drilling.
Like the 10,000 psi model that was unveiled in late February — and led to the first new deepwater well permit approval a day later — the new capping stack will be housed in North Houston and can be at the site of a blowout offshore in less than 48 hours, according to Helix Well Containment Group.
The consortium’s well containment plan states that if there’s no debris blocking the well bore, the stack can be attached and shut off flow in three to four days. But other complications could delay final closure. If the capping stack is not enough to stop all flow and containment vessels and systems are necessary to carry oil to the surface, it could take as long as 17 days, consortium spokeswoman Danielle Allen said.
Michael Bromwich, the government’s top offshore regulator, said the 10 deepwater wells approved since Feb. 28 can all be shut in using only the capping stack.
The consortium’s second capping stack, which weighs 156,000 pounds, boasts a larger opening than others, something that should allow scientists to keep working on the insides of a busted blowout preventer even while shutting off the flow.
It’s one of the new components developed since last summer when a cap built on the fly by one of the consortium’s contractors, Helix Energy Solutions, finally shut in BP’s Macondo well, 87 days after its blowout preventer failed.
A diagram of Helix Well Containment Group’s full capping stack and oil collection system.
In addition, the capping stack has ports for tubes to connect to ships on the surface, in case it needs to collect excessive oil flowing out. That containment system works in up to 8,000 feet of water and is being expanded to 10,000 feet this summer, Allen said.
Asked why Helix Well Containment Group is keeping its equipment in Houston when the vast majority of deepwater oil and gas prospects are off the Louisiana coast, Allen said the threat of hurricanes played a major role in the company’s decision.
“The Louisiana coast has some vulnerability in the event of a hurricane surge,” she said. “Houston is close enough to the port, but would not put it in the path of a hurricane surge and would allow for access to other ports via land.”
She also contended that most deepwater wells are about 200 miles from each deepwater Gulf port, but Macondo and some of the wells approved recently are about 100 miles from Port Fourchon.