U.S. Testing MWCC’s Capping Stack in Gulf of Mexico

The Marine Well Containment Company’s capping stack. Photo: MWCC

HOUSTON–U.S. regulators are testing how a spill-fighting consortium of international oil companies would respond to the worst-case scenario: a well blowout thousands of feet under water.

The exercise, which began Tuesday morning and will go on for several weeks, will have the Marine Well Containment Co. lower a capping stack–a device similar to the one that stopped the flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon well in 2010–through 7,000 feet of water and latching it to a test well head.

The capping stack will be lowered by wire, a technique that could potentially be faster than the one used in 2010, when the capping stack was lowered by pipe.

“This exercise will help further enhance [the] industry’s preparedness by deploying one important component of their well-control capabilities to the sea floor,” said Jim Watson, director of the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, in a news release.

The Marine Well Containment Co. is an independent nonprofit organization headquartered in Houston. It was founded by Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM), Chevron Corp. (CVX), ConocoPhillips (COP) and Royal Dutch Shell PLC (RDSA, RDSA.LN) in the wake of BP PLC’s (BP, BP.LN) Deepwater Horizon disaster, to address concerns that the oil industry didn’t have the ability to stop deep-water spills. Now it has equipment ready to be deployed in the case of an emergency.

Under laws enacted after the Deepwater Horizon blowout, which in 2010 killed 11 aboard a drilling rig and unleashed the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, companies are required to show they have access to and could deploy surface- and subsea-containment equipment to respond quickly to a blowout.

Tuesday’s exercise is part of a series of planned and unannounced exercises and inspections designed to make sure the oil and natural-gas operators can actually carry out their required spill-response plans.

In May, the bureau said it will at some point administer a similar exercise to the Helix Well Containment Group, the other consortium that provides well-containment equipment to oil and natural-gas operators in the Gulf.

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