This week commemorates the fifth anniversary of one of the worst oil spills in US history. On 20 April 2010, 11 lives were lost when BP’s Macondo well blew out, spilling millions of barrels of oil, igniting not just a fire, but change within the oil and gas industry.
There's no escaping the impact that the Macondo blowout has had, and as we speak, BP continues to pay for the errors made leading up to the accident. To date, BP has spent US$28 billion on response, cleanup, and early restoration, including $5 billion in payments for claims after the spill. And undoubtedly, BP will continue to pay as the company faces the penalty phase of its federal court trial.
What arose in the aftermath of Deepwater Horizon, were the changes to daily operations, safety protocols, regulations, integrity management, and focus on the human element. Deepwater Horizon was considered a perfect storm, all things that could have gone wrong, did, and warning signs went unheeded.
With all that in mind, OE’s Managing Editor Audrey Leon spoke with Mike Noel, commercial director for Helix Well Containment Group (HWCG) — a company that arose out of response efforts to Deepwater Horizon — about the lessons the industry has learned since 2010, and discussed how prepared the offshore industry is to respond to another subsea blowout event.
OE: As we arrive at the fifth anniversary of Deepwater Horizon, Mike, can you share some memories from that event and how it affected you as someone who worked on response efforts?
It started out like most events: with little immediate information. I was asked to dispatch equipment to the site in anticipation that daylight would bring more answers. Daylight revealed a situation that exceeded all expectations. I worked on the effort seven days a week for nine months.
My biggest takeaway from that time was seeing a company that committed to the effort and took charge of the response. They established multiple command posts and tried to anticipate needs. If there was one thing that stood out more than anything else, it was a spirit to resolve the situation without cost as a driving factor. No idea was turned away, but rather encouraged from the business community as well as the public. Many good ideas surfaced during this time.
OE: How did Deepwater Horizon change the way the offshore oil and gas industry handles its daily operations? And with all of the changes the industry has undergone in terms of safety improvements, do you think there is more work to be done?
With the Macondo blowout, a number of unique drilling occurrences unfolded simultaneously which led to the disaster. Since then, more focus has been placed on safety with a goal of zero accidents. Upper management supports and helps drive the culture of safety through their organizations. The industry provides ongoing training to individuals working offshore to help reduce risk and raise awareness. Safety advancements continue to be made and incorporated into improved operating procedures. We just need to maintain a knowledgeable situational awareness and be vigilant against complacency. Injuries and accidents are preventable.
In addition, much pre-planning goes into the design of all deepwater wells. This information is shared with HWCG to ensure compatibility with the containment equipment. Engineering factors and design, including water depths, the prediction of the maximum well pressure and the connector type needed to land a capping stack on a drilling BOP are all shared in advance. This type of exchange supports an expedited response in an emergency situation.
OE: Following Deepwater Horizon, how do you feel collaboration amongst companies in the area of response efficiency has improved?
That spirit of cooperation and collaboration within the industry does and has always existed. Well design is a complex undertaking involving geologists and engineers from many disciplines working on decades-long developed standards.
HWCG’s focus is on a response solution to an unlikely event occurring. Through the collaboration of experts across the industry, including surface and subsurface response personnel, we have the ability to regain control of a well and cap a deepwater blowout in less than seven days, a vast improvement to the Macondo response, which was almost 90 days. The development of a subsea containment system that incorporates subsea capping stacks compatible with existing drilling systems has been key to this solution.
Companies have teamed together to gain access to this specialty equipment that was not available just five years ago. Today, the equipment, as well contingency response procedures, has been put in place to provide containment resources to our members if there is ever a need. HWCG exists solely to meet the demands of our member companies in the event they have a situation like Macondo.
OE: HWCG currently has 16 member companies, can companies still join? How does HWCG work?
Membership is open to all qualifying companies with the approval of our current members. HWCG is a member-owned company structured without a profit motive. The member companies direct our activity to fulfill and focus the response effort based on their ongoing needs.
We represent the collaborative efforts of the whole that can focus on an individual issue. As a unique membership requirement, each company must provide personnel to HWCG’s mutual aid support program. This mutual aid group is comprised of specialists in the deepwater field that will support any member if there is a need. Because of this structure, each company multiplies their response capacity by the total of the consortium.
HWCG is built on a philosophy of retaining the majority of its response solution from equipment and vessels used daily in the Gulf to support deepwater operations. We choose to purchase very few items, focusing on specialty equipment to ensure its immediate availability to members. To secure the other assets needed to support response operations, we maintain time sensitive contracts with prime vendors that operate on a daily basis in the Gulf of Mexico.
This combination of owned and leased equipment allows greater flexibility to combat an event by allowing for immediate access to equipment already in position in the Gulf. Additionally, important upgrades and safety updates on vendors’ equipment are carried out regularly to stay commercially viable within the market place. Crews onboard work together on a regular daily basis. Compared to exclusively owned assets, our leasing model reduces exposure to risk because the crews are familiar with each other, the equipment and processes.
OE: The Center for Offshore Safety recently issued a report stating that “America’s offshore oil and natural gas industry is even safer than before,” do you agree with this assessment? In your opinion, if there’s another Deepwater Horizon, would the industry be ready to respond?
Every day we get better at safety. Safety is a culture that has taken hold within the industry, and I expect it to continue to flourish and continue to produce benefits for the industry.
If tomorrow there were another Macondo, the industry would be much better prepared to deal with the event. The industry also understands that the best preparation for a situation like this is to avoid it completely. But if it were to happen again, HWCG has the response equipment to lead a significantly improved capping of the well compared with Macondo.
Our motto states “Ready to Respond.” The prime focus of HWCG is to maintain vigilance on a system that can contain a subsea blowout. We were not in existence five years ago, but today HWCG keeps this effort at the forefront for all of our member companies.
About Mike Noel
Michael Noel has over 35 years of emergency response and incident command post experience to his role as commercial director at HWCG. Noel’s expertise includes developing training protocols and standards for emergency response activities and coordinating the ready response status of personnel and equipment both onshore and offshore.
During his tenure as assistant vice president of operations at National Response Corp., Noel led over 3500 personnel in his area of operations and over 150 vessels in response to the BP Deepwater Horizon incident. He spent six months working with the operations section chief in the Houma, Louisiana, command post before successfully establishing and managing a decontamination yard in Amelia, Louisiana. Noel coordinated the safety, security and logistics for over 500 personnel at the site.
Main image: Courtesy of the US Coast Guard.
Read more of OE's past Deepwater Horizon coverage:
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