OSPRAG approves well capping and containment study

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The UK offshore oil and gas advisory group, formed in response to BP’s Gulf of Mexico disaster, has commissioned an engineering study to develop new design concepts for well capping and containment.

In a statement yesterday, the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group (OSPRAG) gave formal approval to its Technical Review Group (TRG) to proceed with developing new solutions for preventing or mitigating similar catastrophes in the future.

The project forms part of the UK offshore oil and gas industry’s comprehensive review of its well control practices and assessment of its readiness to respond to a major oil spill.

Brian Kinkead, TRG leader and Oil & Gas UK’s supply chain director, said that over the past 20 years nearly 7,000 wells have been successfully drilled in the UK continental shelf (UKCS). However, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has spurred the UK oil and gas industry to rigorously assess its well control practices and assessment of the readiness to respond to a major oil spill should such an event occur in British waters.

Drawing on the experiences from the Gulf of Mexico, Kinkead said that the TRG has outlined three ways in which an oil spill resulting from a failed blow-out preventer (BOP) might be capped and contained and it is now beginning to test the feasibility of those options.

‘The best case we could get to is where we could take a lower marine riser package off the BOP and put another BOP on top of that,’ he said.

Kinkead added that the next option would be similar to one taken by BP, where a top hat would be connected to the flange looking up from the BOP. The third option would take a cofferdam approach, ‘which really doesn’t control any pressure’, he said. ’All it does is deflect the flow of oil and water.’

The oil and water would be deflected to the surface, added Kinkead, through a riser system. ‘On the surface, you would then have to have a series of separation and handling systems so you could then take the oil back to a tanker,’ he said. ‘That is the least-preferred best option.’

Kinkead noted: ‘The difficulty in all these scenarios is you never really know what you’re going to be left with, so we’re trying to come up with concepts that cover the widest range of possibilities that we could consider.’

One thing they will not be considering is why the BOP ceased to work in the first place. ‘We’ll wait for the lessons that come out of the Gulf of Mexico on those issues,’ he said.

The engineering consultancy chosen by the TRG is expected to complete the study of all the options in 60 days and decide on the suitability of different contingency equipment and possible improvements to existing systems.

As to whether the UK advisory group’s actions might be viewed as knee-jerk reaction to a disaster, Britta Hallbauer, a spokeswoman for Oil & Gas UK, said any accusation such as that would be ‘wholly unjustified’. 

‘OSPRAG was formed in order to review what we are currently doing in the UK in terms of preventing and reacting to oil spills should one occur,’ she said. ‘We believe that our regime here is very strong and that we are actually doing the right things, but we felt that, in the light of the Gulf of Mexico incident, it might be good to review our practices.’

The TRG comprises representatives from oil and gas operating companies, drilling contractors, the Department for Energy and Climate Change, the Health and Safety Executive, trade unions and Oil & Gas UK.  Its sub-groups will be divided by: well capping and containment; well examination, verification and primary well control; competency, behaviour and human factors; BOP inventory and secondary control improvements; and flowing wells inventory.

The findings from investigations in all the sub-group focuses will be recorded in a formal Oil & Gas UK guidance on well control to be published following completion of the work.