OSRL is working hand in hand with its industry partners and regulators to continuously improve the effectiveness of well capping and containment equipment in the most challenging locations.
Various forms of subsea capping and containment systems have been available to the O&G industry for several decades. In the event of a blowout, they are used to temporarily prevent crude and natural gas from entering the marine environment until a relief well or other intervention can permanently solve the situation.
The Macondo incident in 2010 raised several concerns, however. Deep-water environments potentially presented significant complications, such as the formation of gas hydrates, and made effective operation difficult with existing technology. The O&G industry collectively realised that an entirely new capping and containment system needed to be developed and maintained.
Post Macondo, the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP) very quickly established a committee called the Global Industry Response Group (GIRG) to consider how to improve well capping response readiness and to study the need for, and feasibility of, global containment. The subsea well response project (SWRP), a consortium of nine leading upstream companies, was established to take forward the GIRG’s recommendations. They identified a set of intervention equipment that could enhance the industry’s capabilities to respond to a subsea well incident in a variety of conditions around the world. Oil Spill Response Limited (OSRL) was chosen to make this new equipment available to the industry.
OSRL was formed from the pioneering work of British Petroleum’s Oil Spill Service Centre, and was formally established in 1985 with funding support from four other international oil companies to form an industry cooperative. The mandate was simple; be able to respond to an oil spill anywhere in the world. In the last three decades, OSRL has grown to over 275 employees stationed in nine office and equipment centres around the globe. It is owned by over 40 of the most environmentally responsible oil and gas companies. In total, there are over 140 members including oil majors, national or independent oil companies, and energy-related companies operating elsewhere in the oil supply chain.
In 2011, the Subsea Well Response Project (SWRP) contracted Trendsetter Engineering, a specialist subsea firm based in Houston, to design and construct a capping stack system that could be deployed in a wide variety of environments. OSRL now owns, stores and maintains the response readiness of the equipment required for well intervention operations and containment in four, strategic, global locations on behalf of industry. Members who subscribe to its subsea well intervention services (SWIS) can mobilise and deploy the equipment in the event of a subsea incident. The subsea well intervention service (SWIS) entered service in 2012.
This capping stack system is at the heart of SWIS. OSRL now is custodian of four capping stacks and supporting ancillaries, including two 18¾” 15,000 psi stacks and two 7¹/₁₆” 10,000 psi stacks, strategically located in Brazil, Singapore, Norway and South Africa. The modular units can be configured for a variety of subsea interface requirements and transported by land, sea and/or air. They are designed for subsea use to a maximum depth of 3000 m, and include functionality to mitigate the formation of gas hydrates. They can handle fluids up to 1500 C, as well as the presence of well contaminants.
Just as importantly, the capping stack system is designed to adapt to a range of scenarios. The system can be precisely lowered and connected to the subsea blowout preventer (BOP), flex joint, or well head. It is suitable for both exploration and production wells. It can safely contain, and choke and cap up to 100,000 bpd flow in a controlled manner. In the event that a well cannot be shut in using a capping stack, OSRL also has a containment system, which was made available to subscribing members at the beginning of 2015. It is designed to safely capture and flow oil and gas to the surface in the event of well integrity issues with the incident well. The containment system allows the oil and gas to be transported away by tanker or flared in a controlled fashion. The containment equipment can operate for extensive periods of time, allowing the incident owner the opportunity to drill a relief well.
OSRL also owns, stores and maintains the response readiness of the subsea incident response toolkit (SIRT), which is provided as part of a member’s subscription to the capping stack system. The toolkit consists of a range of equipment designed to allow the Incident Owner to survey the site, clear debris, and deliver dispersants directly to the blowout. Another key function of the SIRT is to connect directly to the in field BOP and attempt well shut in, potentially eliminating the need for a capping stack. The toolkit is pre-packaged in standardised containers, and can be quickly delivered by air to the site1.
When an incident arises, OSRL supports the well owner’s response requirements by mobilising the capping stack system, SIRT and containment equipment as directed by the member. In some cases, well shut in can be successfully achieved with the use of the SIRT as a fast, first strike package. For instance, all subsea wellheads are equipped with a blowout preventer (BOP). Normally, the subsea BOP is activated when conditions warrant, but, in rare instances, it may fail to work. Using the SIRT, the Incident Owner may be able to remediate issues that prevented the BOP from closing, and successfully kill the blowout.
While the Incident Owner is working with the SIRT, OSRL will reconfigure the capping stack based on the mobilising party requirements. It conducts pre-deployment testing to ensure functionality, and then hands equipment over at dockside or airport2. The Incident Owner then takes authority of the equipment and deploys it at the incident site.
Subsea response operations are complex. To execute efficiently, they require extensive logistical support. It’s not just about moving equipment from A to B – it is about maximising response effectiveness, ensuring the equipment arrives in the correct order and is pre-configured ready to deploy on site. When well containment operations are added to well capping response operations, the logistical challenges increase significantly. OSRL’s specialist knowledge of the equipment means it can work with members to create bespoke subsea logistics plans and response time models
The important of training
Some major oil companies have in-house emergency response teams and equipment. Because incidents are thankfully rare, keeping staff at a steady state of alert is understandably challenging. There are three key components to keeping response teams prepared; training, exercises and feedback.
OSRL offers a wide variety of online and bespoke training that allows response members to learn about equipment, processes and procedures. Staff become familiar with technical details, roles and responsibilities, and safe conduct.
OSRL also help devise and coordinate field exercises in order to optimise preparedness. A robust field exercise provides response and emergency management members with the opportunity to practise skills, to work together closely and develop working relationships, and to make complex decisions under what can often be stressful circumstances.
An important aspect of all training is feedback. After every field exercise, OSRL prepares reports detailing the level of response for personnel, equipment and logistics. The report highlights areas of excellence, as well as weaknesses; in the latter case, recommendations for improvement are included.
OSRL’s subsea services are a live entity that continually evolves as new research, technologies and devices emerge. OSRL and its members are always refining and improving the system, preparing for the day that it may be needed.
OSRL, in partnership with SWRP, is currently developing the Offset Installation Equipment (OIE) for use in the event of a subsea well incident where vertical well access by vessel is not possible (for example in shallow water). Because oil is less dense than seawater, crude from a blowout rises to surface. In deeper wells, ocean currents could carry the well fluids laterally away from the well. Although this complicates remediation, it does have a fortuitous consequence; volatile materials do not accumulate directly above the well, so surface vessels can safely operate.
Blowouts in shallow waters, however, can require an exclusion zone above the well for safety purposes. SWRP and OSRL have been working with manufacturers to design a system that allows the Incident Owner to deploy OSRL’s capping stack system from a safe lateral distance away from the incident well. While there is testing and scope still to be completed, OSRL expects to have the OIE available to members by late 2017.
Plans are also underway to further enhance training through a network of support organizations, as well as a strategic alliance with support organizations to provide a fully integrated field support service (deployment, well source control, relief well planning etc) during a response through qualified independent contractors.
Fortunately, OSRL’s capping and containment equipment has never had to be deployed in a blowout. If and when the time comes, however, the offshore O&G industry stands ready and able to respond in a quick, safe and effective manner with not only the best capping and containment systems available, but also the highest standards of training and personnel.