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Cameron Says Containment System Can Go Beyond Gulf of Mexico

10 June 2011

A Houston company says it has developed a system ready to respond to oil spills worldwide using concepts engineered for the Gulf of Mexico after last year's BP disaster.

Wild Well Control, a 36-year-old emergency well response company with 250 employees, has crafted a mammoth machine to plug out-of-control wells in deep waters around the world.

Its effort follows containment work by separate energy industry consortia the Helix Well Containment Group and the Marine Well Containment Co.

While the three systems are similar in their approaches to bringing gushing wells under control, Helix and Marine Well Containment crafted theirs specifically for use in the Gulf of Mexico.

Wild Well's response system includes a plan to fly its equipment around the world to respond to emergency situations.

The company is betting that new U.S. regulations requiring drillers to have spill response plans in place - which sparked the creation of the Helix and Marine Well systems - will go global.

Wild Well's system boasts multi-functionality to attack underwater spill sites - clearing debris, dispersing oil and capping the well using a hydraulic power unit.

The key component, a 106-ton well-capping stack, was manufactured largely by Cameron International. Houston-based Cameron made the subsea blowout preventer that failed as the last line of defense against surging oil and gas in BP's Macondo well in April 2010, and it later assembled the capping stack that finally stopped the flow almost three months later.

Wild Well officials said their company participated in the response to the Macondo blowout, which destroyed the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig and killed 11 workers. Wild Well's efforts included firefighting, oil dispersing and well containment.

Six international companies operating subsea wells have committed to subscribe to the system, said Bill Mahler, Wild Well executive vice president and general manager. The company hopes to amass at least 16.

Wild Well expects the system to be ready by September.

The company, a subsidiary of New Orleans-based service company Superior Energy Services, is selling five-year subscriptions for access to its well-containment system, charging $1.2 million the first year and $525,000 for each of the next four.

Mahler wouldn't say which companies have signed on, but he added that they are foreign operators with wells in the Mediterranean Sea, the North Sea, and the Atlantic Ocean off Brazil and West Africa.

There are signs that more foreign governments could follow the United States' lead and require well containment plans as a condition for offshore drilling permits.

In April, the U.S. Department of Interior, which issues drilling permits, hosted a meeting of global energy officials to discuss strengthening responses to deep-water well blowouts.

Overseas drill operators "know it's coming, and the ones being proactive are the ones that are talking to us now," Mahler said.

That many of those companies are operating wells in European waters isn't surprising, because the well-capping stack is stored in Aberdeen, Scotland, on the North Sea shore.

Wild Well has an office in Aberdeen, and the contractors and infrastructure supporting the well-containment system are based there or nearby, Mahler said, noting also that the North Sea contains a large number of the world's subsea wells.

James Pappas, vice president of the Ultra-Deepwater Program at the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America, a Sugar Land-based nonprofit, said deep-water well containment is attracting growing international interest.

"Globally, people are coming to a realization that they'll have to address it in some way," Pappas said. "It will be up to some federal agency or a consortium to determine just how close and available these systems will need to be based on risk assessment."

The Gulf-based Helix and Marine Well Containment Co. systems have the advantage on proximity, at least for Gulf of Mexico wells. It takes four hours to get the Wild Well capping stack to Glasgow Prestwick Airport and another 12 to load it onto an airplane, said Randy Kubota, Wild Well's general manager of marine engineering. The flight to Houston takes another half-day, and once it arrives, assembling and testing the five-piece system takes two more days.

But other components of the system - the debris clearing and dispersant-injection equipment - are housed in Houston as well as Aberdeen. Mahler says those pieces could be at work on an out-of-control well while the capping stack is in transit.

"It will get there before it's actually needed," Mahler said.