Drilling to start near site of 2010 offshore oil spill

CAIN BURDEAU, Associated Press

LLOG Exploration Offshore plans to drill into the Macondo reservoir, according to federal records.

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Deep-water drilling is set to resume near the site of the catastrophic BP PLC well blowout that killed 11 workers and caused the largest U.S. offshore oil spill five years ago off the coast of Louisiana.

A Louisiana-based oil company, LLOG Exploration Offshore LLC, plans to drill into the Macondo reservoir, according to federal records reviewed by The Associated Press.

Harper's Magazine first reported the drilling plans late Tuesday.

LLOG's permit to drill a new well near BP's site was approved April 13 by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which oversees offshore oil and gas drilling operations. The company's exploration plan was approved last October following an environmental review by a sister agency, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management.

The company, a privately owned firm, will be looking to extract oil and gas deep under the Gulf of Mexico's seafloor, an undertaking that proved catastrophic for BP.

"Our commitment is to not allow such an event to occur again," said Rick Fowler, the vice president for deep-water projects at LLOG. The drilling will be done by the Sevan Louisiana, a semisubmersible drilling rig owned by Sevan Drilling ASA, an international drilling company based in Oslo, Norway.

On April 20, 2010, a drilling rig owned by Transocean Ltd. and hired by BP to drill into the Macondo field experienced a series of problems that led to a massive blowout. Investigators later faulted BP and its contractors for fatal missteps.

The drilling rig, in waters about 45 miles (72.4 kilometers) off the Louisiana coast, was engulfed in flames. Eleven workers were killed, 17 were seriously injured and more than 100 had to be evacuated.

BP, its contractors and federal regulators struggled to contain the blowout and kill the out-of-control well over the next 87 days. In all, the federal government calculated that about 172 million gallons (651 million liters) spilled into the Gulf. BP put the number much lower, closer to 100 million gallons (379 million liters).

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 a small company like LLOG has the financial means to respond to a blowout similar to BP's.

Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane University Energy Institute in New Orleans, dismissed those concerns. He called LLOG "an extremely well-financed and well-organized" company.

"If I were to pick anyone to go into that field after so many problems, I would pick LLOG," Smith said. "They have demonstrated their ability to drill in the area."

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 wells in the Gulf since 2002, he said.

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 the area 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."

John Filostrat, a spokesman for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, said LLOG would be the first company to attempt to tap the oil and gas reserves that BP had been seeking. He said regulators did extensive reviews of the company's drilling plans.

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