In accordance with a promise it made to the village of Nuiqsut prior to the start of its North Slope exploration program, Repsol E&P USA Inc. has suspended all its Alaska drilling operations as it continues to investigate the cause of a recent blowout at one of its four North Slope exploration pads.
“We have temporarily suspended our drilling operations in Alaska while we investigate the incident to fully understand the cause and to put in place preventative measures for future drilling operations,” Greg Smith, director of the U.S. Business Unit for the Spanish oil major told Petroleum News by email on Feb. 22. “The decision to continue drilling operations is subject to approvals from State of Alaska agencies and the North Slope Borough who have worked closely with us on the incident response.”
As Petroleum News went to print this week, response teams on the North Slope continued to work around the clock to secure the Qugruk 2 well, on an ice pad with the same name. The blowout occurred on Feb. 15; the well ceased flowing on Feb. 16.
Preparations for a well control operation are ongoing. The work is primarily focused on thawing out equipment on the frozen tundra, according to a Feb. 22 situation report from the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
The well control crews are using two heaters to pump hot air into the drilling rig to thaw out necessary equipment, and are steam-thawing the frozen drilling mud that is currently blocking access to components needed for well-kill operations. The crews are removed 117 barrels of drilling mud and water from the site using four “supersucker” trucks.
“Our top priority at this point is to safely secure the Q2 well. The thawing and reactivation process is going to take at least a few more days and maybe longer. There is a huge volume of frozen mud and water on the rig floor that we are currently removing with steam. That process is going well, it just takes time in these conditions. The clean-up will begin just as soon as the well is officially secured,” Smith said on Feb. 22.
The crews installed a camera on the site to help inspect and repair the drill pipe, and completed a 200-foot by 200-foot extension of the ice pad to house a camp for crews.
The crews cannot begin clean up until the well is under control. Repsol has submitted a draft well-kill plan to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for review.
Repsol also said that it lost 200 gallons of hydraulic fluid from the rig. The fluid drained to a sump on the rig and will be removed with the drilling mud as crews repair the rig.
Once the well is killed, the company will evaluate the condition of the wellbore before deciding whether the well can be salvaged or will need to be plugged, Smith said.
Prior to securing permission to drill from the North Slope Borough, Repsol made a commitment to the people of Nuiqsut to “cease and desist” drilling operations at all four of its ice drill sites should an incident occur at any one of them.
At the time of the Q2 blowout one other well was being drilled — Kachemach 1.
Rigs are standing by waiting to move to Qugruk 1 and 4.
State officials were clear that Repsol’s drilling program was on standby; that drilling for the season has not been canceled.
Repsol representatives said having AOGCC and the borough take a second look at its plans for the other eight wells it hopes to complete this winter was the prudent thing to do.
Industry pulling togetherThe Qugruk No. 2 well blew out when the exploration well hit a shallow gas pocket at around 2,500 feet en route to a deeper oil target at around 7,000 feet. The blowout sent some 42,000 gallons of fresh-water based drilling mud onto the ice pad and the surrounding snow-covered tundra, and vented an unknown amount of gas.
Although the well is still not under control a week after the incident, government and industry have so far described the event as the best possible bad situation. The blowout did not lead to any injuries, explosions or oil spills and the diverter worked as planned.
“The industry really pulled together to help us,” Smith said. “Right after the incident occurred they suspended drilling operations and got in touch with us through emails, asking ‘what can we do to help?’ They supported our efforts 110 percent.”
The suspension halts the most active North Slope exploration program in one of the most active exploration seasons on record. Repsol originally planned to drill as many as 15 wells, but permitting issues forced the company to reduce its well count to nine, two of which were planned for the Q2 pad — Q2 and Q2A wells.