RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
And I'm Mary Louise Kelly, in this week for Steve Inskeep.
Tomorrow marks one year since the big blowout at BP's well in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 men and caused a massive oil spill. This spring, companies are just starting to return to work, drilling new wells in the deep waters of the Gulf. They're doing so under a new regulator and with a lot of new rules governing them. Now oil companies must prove they can contain an out-of-control well before they start drilling.
NPR's Jeff Brady is among the few reporters who go an up close look at the equipment that's been built for just such an emergency.
JEFF BRADY: Sitting in a gravel lot north of downtown Houston is a shiny new piece of equipment called a capping stack.
Mr. MARTY MASSEY (CEO, Marine Well Containment Company): Well, it's a big hunk of iron, as you can see.
BRADY: That's Marty Massey, CEO of the Marine Well Containment Company.
Mr. MASSEY: It's about 30-foot tall. It weighs 100 tons.
BRADY: The yellow and blue capping stack needs that kind of bulk to withstand the extraordinary pressures in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. In an emergency it would be placed over a well to cap it off and then it could divert oil to ships up on the surface. It's similar to what was used to eventually bring BP's Macondo well under control. This particular capping stack is part of a temporary system oil companies have put in place. A permanent one will be finished next year.
Mr. MASSEY: The expanded system will be able to handle 100,000 barrels of fluid a day and it can operate in 10,000 feet of water.
BRADY: Massey's not-for-profit company was formed after some of the largest oil companies joined forces to share the $1 billion cost of building a containment system. After BP's spill a year ago, the Obama administration placed a moratorium on deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. The agency charged with regulating offshore drilling was overhauled and given a new name, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.
Former federal prosecutor and inspector general Michael Bromwich was put in charge. In February, he says the industry finally proved to him that it had equipment and plans in place to contain well blowouts.
Mr. MICHAEL BROMWICH (Director, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement): And then and only then did we feel comfortable approving permits for deep-water drilling.
BRADY: There are actually two federally-approved containment systems. The other is the Helix Well Containment Group, and it offers a less expensive alternative for smaller companies that drill in the Gulf.
(Soundbite of machinery)
BRADY: This equipment is stored in an industrial area west of downtown Houston. Roger Scheuermann is commercial director for the Helix Group.
Mr. ROGER SCHEUERMANN (Commercial director, Helix Well Containment Group): One thing that we've done, which is a step change for the whole industry, is we've signed a mutual aid agreement.
BRADY: That means all the member companies will come to each other's aid if there's an emergency. They'll share equipment and personnel, which makes it more affordable for these smaller companies to comply with the federal requirements.
Scheuermann says there's now a detailed plan in place and if something happens, all the members know exactly what they're supposed to do. He says within just a few hours Helix's capping stack would be on its way to a dock.
Mr. SCHEUERMANN: If we ever have the call, we'll be able to load it up, truck-wise, get a permit, and move it to the location that's necessary.
BRADY: So just kind of pick a point in the Gulf of Mexico, how quickly could this equipment be there?
Mr. SCHEUERMANN: Well, if we were going to Galveston, I would say we'd probably be there in six to eight hours.
BRADY: It would still take more time to get the equipment out to the location in the Gulf. But the response for both systems now likely will take days instead of the weeks required to bring BP's Macondo well under control.
Mr. DAVID PETTIT (Natural Resources Defense Council): I think it's great if they work.
BRADY: David Pettit is an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He says while regulators are doing a much better job now, he's still not confident that the containment systems are ready to handle anything that could go wrong.
Mr. PETTIT: What would inspire confidence for me would be some kind of test in, if not in real-world conditions, a test under conditions of extremely high pressure, the kind of pressure that you would see from a, you know, from a blown-out well and to see if the thing actually works.
BRADY: Helix plans to conduct underwater tests sometime in the future. And both the containment organizations say their systems use components that are well-tested and known within the industry. They say the designs were effectively tested when the Macondo blowout was controlled.
So far, BP is not among those drilling new wells yet. But the company has joined the Marine Well Containment Company and it remains the largest lease-holder in the Gulf. So it could be just a matter of time before BP resumes drilling too.
Jeff Brady, NPR News.