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Feds approve Murphy drilling project using Helix emergency equipment

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Cameron Wallace, left, and Eric Poller, a subsea engineer for Helix Well Ops, look at a new oil spill-containment system developed by Houston’s Helix Energy Solutions. (Michael Paulsen/Houston Chronicle)

by Jennifer A. Dlouhy

Federal regulators on Monday issued a permit to the first offshore drilling operation planning to rely on a Houston company’s cap-and-flow containment system in case of a disaster.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement gave the permit to Murphy Exploration & Production Co., allowing the firm to drill a sidetrack well at its Thunder Hawk field about 150 miles southeast of New Orleans.

Other companies have successfully submitted oil spill response plans that would rely on the capping stack developed by Helix Well Containment Group or a separate system devised by the Marine Well Containment Co. But Murphy is the first firm to win regulators’ sign off for an emergency response plan involving Helix’s full flowback system.

The cap-and-flow system caps the well and contains any additional flowing oil in case it is out of control. The entire system involves a capping stack installed on the well head and a flowback system designed to direct the crude to vessels floating overhead.

Although some wells require only the containment system, the cap-and-flow equipment is geared toward operations with higher pressure. Regulators say the cap-and-flow program can help maintain the integrity of an underwater well in cases where the capping stack alone might not do the trick.

The Helix cap-and-flow system is capable of sending 55,000 barrels of oil and 95 million cubic feet of gas per day to the floating ships.

Separately, Helix is asking the Obama administration for a license to provide its containment equipment in case of a spill from offshore drilling in Cuban waters. The Spanish company Repsol is set to begin drilling a deep-water exploratory well north of the island nation — just 50 miles from south Florida — in December or January.

Helix spokesman Cameron Wallace said the ultimate scope of services that would be offered is still under consideration “and no firm commitments have yet been made.”

The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba generally bars U.S. companies from exporting equipment and services to it, but American firms can get special approval from the Treasury Department.

“We believe that it is important to make proven solutions, similar to our Helix Fast Response System, available for any drilling project that could potentially impact the nation’s coastlines,” Wallace said. “Helix’s goal is to make some of these spill containment technologies available while fully complying with federal trade regulations.”

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