Subsea Well Control

Wild Well COO Discusses Deepwater Rapid Response History, Considerations

Subsea Well Control Operations

Wild Well has a rich tradition spanning four decades of providing emergency well control response. In this article, Wild Well Chief Operating Officer Joe Dean Thompson shares the story of the birth of subsea well control, the unique approach to deepwater operations, and the steps that can be taken by operators to reduce the impact of a subsea well control incident.

Thompson will be participating as a member of an expert panel, titled Well Control Considerations of the Modern Era, at the IADC Well Control Conference of the Americas in Galveston, TX, August 25-26, 2015.

Subsea Well Control Gets Its Start

With more than 30 years of experience in well control, Thompson has witnessed the evolution of an industry that now places an ever-intensifying focus on offshore operations.

“In the earlier years, regardless of where it was, we took care of it,” says Thompson. “What people call 'unconventional' marine projects were the only kind of projects we did back then. We didn’t do anything that was considered routine.”

Our industry has always had a certain amount of self-policing and operated based upon historical know-how and procedures honed from experience on the job. As the industry shifted its focus to deeper water and higher pressures, technology further enhanced operators’ ability to access previously untouched reservoirs, and the need for a deepwater well control specialization surfaced.

“What the worldwide industry found over the years was that deep water is where the white elephants are…the much bigger reserves,” says Thompson. “When you’re looking for return on investment, that’s where the most can be had — if you can afford to get there.”

However, the inherent risk and inability to easily mitigate well control events due to logistics dramatically increase as you move from land to offshore. Couple that move with placing the major well assets on the sea floor in water up to 10,000 ft and beyond, and you create an environment that requires a unique skillset.

Providing well control expertise in a deepwater environment was a natural fit for Wild Well since it already had a wealth of well control experience in deep water brought about by years of aiding clients in mitigating events as their drilling programs moved to ever deepening waters. With this work came access to resources and equipment unmatched by any other company, and the understanding of how to apply those assets.

“We brought a marine component to the well control industry and so were best suited to lead the industry in how well control work was carried out,” Thompson says. “All we did was adapt what we already knew to the different environment. The synergy created from melding well control operations and well control engineering with the marine discipline enhanced all aspects of our capabilities and value to our clients.”

The challenge of responding to a well control incident in a deepwater environment is primarily mobilization of personnel, equipment, and other resources. While already being the leader in marine well control response, Wild Well further developed its experience amidst the onslaught of natural disasters that occurred in the Gulf of Mexico during the mid-2000s.

Hurricanes Ivan, Katrina, and Rita impacted the industry assets in a never-before manner, leaving numerous platforms devastated in their wake.

“Right after Ivan — and Katrina shortly thereafter — there were a number of platforms that had been compromised in the Gulf, which was unique,” says Thompson. “We’d never had a case where there were so many structures compromised — so many wells — at one time in multiple locations. “

“Operators came to the well control guys because nobody knew what the conditions of the wells were, except that they were damaged. It was going to take a well control eye to see how to go about securing the wells while the damage was fixed.”

When the incident in the Gulf of Mexico occurred in 2010, many people believed that the industry was faced with a “brand new” challenge. But, as previously mentioned, Wild Well had been working deepwater well control jobs for the better part of a decade, having successfully completed five subsea jobs in the prior 12 months. So taking that knowledge and applying it to the subsea source control event in the Gulf of Mexico wasn’t that far out of their box.

However, it was the solution to the Gulf of Mexico incident that proved to be a pivotal point in subsea well control history.

A Stack to Stop the Flow

As mentioned, some of the processes and procedures for deepwater well control operations may be different, but the objective is essentially the same as it is for well control operations on a land-based rig: Control the flow.

“You’ve got a failure at some point,” says Thompson. “What is it that we need to do to effect a seal or some sort of cap? Or maybe it’s some sort of diverting system that will allow us to address the real problem within the well.”

The Wild Well subsea capping stacks provide a uniquely specific function that is extremely effective when the deployment is managed by the company’s expert WellCONTAINED team.

“We don’t want a capping stack to do everything,” says Thompson. “A Corvette is really good at going fast, but it’s not as good as a pickup truck at hauling 2 tons of lumber. And either one of them is only as good as its driver.”

A capping stack is designed for two things: to shut off flow from a well or to divert it. The capping stack cannot be used as a workover BOP because it is designed with blind rams. Such use adds another layer of complexity into the operation, adds Thompson. “The more complexity you add to the well control operation, the more things can go wrong.”

First and foremost, the stack is used to shut off the flow. If concerns about damage to the tubulars or wellhead system exclude shutting off the flow as an option because of pressure buildup, then the capping stack is used to divert the flow to capture the effluent while a relief well is being drilled so that pollution going into the water can be minimized.

“You want the relief well done as soon as possible,” says Thompson, “but you’re more likely to take a prudent approach and not take a shortcut or two to get the well down in a shorter period of time when doing so adds risk to the probability of success.

“Those are really the two things you want a capping stack to do. If you can do one of these two, it takes pressure off the timing of control operations.”

Maintaining Focus

The biggest challenge operators face in a deepwater source control operation is staying focused on the specific task of capping the well.

“There are so many things going on,” says Thompson. “You’ve got the regulatory people, the environmental people, the HSE people, the legal people, the news media, the families of the people on the rig, your own employees (clients) are affected, the disruption of business from pulling your (clients’) best people together off of other projects — it’s easy to get distracted.”

Typically, the operation requires a two-pronged approach: direct intervention and relief well operations.

Direct intervention involves all of the necessary services and equipment as well as the assessment and evaluation of what is salvageable, what can be used, what can’t be used, any equipment that needs to be moved so the well can be accessed, what resources need to be brought onsite to complete the operation, and so on.

“It becomes so large that it’s very important you build a team that is capable of addressing all those things, but not so large a team that you can’t get anything done,” says Thompson. “There has to be a point of the spear, one person or just a few who make the absolute decisions.”

Being Prepared for the Worst-Case Scenario

Thompson emphasizes the importance of effective preparation, saying that to minimize the effects of an incident, an operator can accelerate the process by following three practices: preplanning, preplanning, and preplanning.

“A blowout is a blowout,” says Thompson. “When you have oil flowing out uncontrolled from a wellbore, it is going to take a certain amount of time to apply assets to make that stop. The one thing you can do to help accelerate that process is to have as much preplanning done as possible.

“That’s where the SCERP and WCERP come into play, that’s where understanding ICS and practicing setting up an ICS in that environment helps because it’s not [a client’s] core job — not what they do for a living — but they have to have an understanding of what it looks like, how it’s set up, and how you function within that system to make it work as efficiently as possible.

“And if you do all of that up front and if you drill on that, find the holes that you have and fill them, then you can be prepared as much as possible for an event that can look like many different things. Coordination of a system of tasks this size takes practice.”

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