Just 3 miles from the catastrophic BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, a Louisiana company is seeking to unlock the same oil and natural gas that turned into a deadly disaster.
Drilling has begun in the closest work yet to the Macondo well, which blew wild on April 20, 2010, killing 11 people and fouling the Gulf with as much as 172 million gallons of crude in the nation’s worst oil spill. Federal regulators gave their blessing last month to LLOG Exploration Offshore LLC. to drill the first new well in the same footprint where BP was digging before.
The resumption of drilling at the former BP site comes as the oil industry pushes into ever deeper and riskier reservoirs in the Gulf. It reflects renewed industry confidence — even as critics say not enough has been done to ensure another disaster is avoided.
“Now that five years have passed it seems that some of the emotions are less raw,” said Pavel Molchanov, an energy analyst with the investment firm Raymond James in Houston.
If anything, drilling into BP’s Macondo reservoir may be safer now, he said.
“Just because there was a spill there doesn’t mean it’s more dangerous,” he said. “It could make it less dangerous considering how much the seabed there has been studied.”
Paul Bommer, a petroleum engineer at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of national panels investigating the BP disaster, said it was only a matter of time before drilling would resume there.
There is just too much money at stake.
Yet LLOG’s own exploration plans provide a window into the potential risks.
In September exploration plans, LLOG estimated its worst-case scenario for an uncontrolled blowout could unleash 252 million gallons of oil over the course of 109 days. By comparison, the BP spill lasted 87 days and resulted in as much as 172 million gallons of oil pouring into the Gulf.
“Our commitment is to not allow such an event to occur again,” said Rick Fowler, the vice president for deep-water projects at LLOG.
Fowler said the shallow part of the well has been drilled and that the deeper section will be completed later this year.
LLOG’s permit to drill a new well was approved April 13 by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which oversees offshore oil and gas drilling operations.
Lars Herbst, the agency’s regional director, said in a statement that LLOG had demonstrated it could be trusted.
“In order to obtain a permit to drill LLOG had to meet new standards for well-design, casing, and cementing which include a professional engineer certification,” he said.
But Liz Birnbaum, former director of the Minerals Management Service, the former agency that oversaw oil drilling at the time of the BP spill, said allowing drillers to go after that oil is cause for concern because regulations covering well-control are not in effect and years away from being mandatory.
Five years ago, BP, its contractors and federal regulators struggled to contain the blowout and kill the out-of-control well. In all, the federal government calculated that about 172 million gallons spilled into the Gulf. BP put the number much lower, closer to 100 million gallons.
Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the Ocean Foundation and a longtime industry watchdog, said drilling into that reservoir has proved very dangerous and highly technical, and it raises questions about whether LLOG has the financial means to respond to a blowout similar to BP’s.
The shallow part of the well was dug by the Sevan Louisiana, a rig owned by Sevan Drilling ASA, a large international drilling company based in Oslo, Norway. Another rig, the Seadrill West Neptune, will complete the well.
Since 2010, LLOG has drilled eight wells in the area in “analogous reservoirs at similar depths and pressures,” Fowler said. The company has drilled more than 50 deep-water wells in the Gulf since 2002, he said.
The company already has drilled three wells in the vicinity that tap into the same reservoir BP was going after in 2010. He said those wells were drilled without problems.
He said the company has studied the investigations into the Macondo disaster and “ensured the lessons from those reports are accounted for in our design and well procedures.”
BP spokesman Brett Clanton said an area even closer to the well, owned by BP, is an “exclusion zone” where oil and gas operations are off-limits both “out of respect for the victims” and to allow BP “to perform any response activities related to the accident.”