As this edition of Energy was going to press, a team of specialists from Houston-headquartered Wild Well Control were in the early stages of trying to tame a dangerous and very unwelcome major hydrocarbons leak in the Total-operated Elgin gas/condensate field.
If they are lucky, they will get the redundant G4 well back under control within a relatively short time using an intervention technique known as “dynamic well kill”.
For the WWC team, who are trained for this and work out of the company’s Eastern Hemisphere centre in Aberdeen, such a dangerous incident is all in a day’s work.
And it has been the same for its president Freddy Gebhardt since he joined the company 30 or so years ago, having dreamed of becoming an oilfield fire-fighter since high school.
But he told Energy that such incidents are only part of the job at WWC; the bigger commitment is to ensuring that operating companies have robust enough operating and safety processes in place that a well fire or blow-out is a rarity.
“A big piece of our service is prevention,” said Gebhardt. “There’s nothing new about it. It’s been part of the upstream industry for a long time, though some might think otherwise because of the Macondo disaster (Gulf of Mexico, April 2010).
“However, a lot of lessons on how to do things better have come out of that and have definitely helped the oil and gas industry globally.”
Among the outcomes was the design and build of new hardware designed to cap a rogue, damaged or wrecked well spewing hydrocarbons. WWC made a big contribution to this and, last year at Offshore Europe, unveiled the capping stack built for the UK North Sea but which will hopefully never be used in anger.
“But it ultimately comes down to prevention services, training and drills. Operators have been doing these things for years; we’ve been doing this for many years too. But, sadly, there are still events . . . like Macondo. There always will be.
“It’s interesting that back in the 80s when I joined Wild Well Control, there was a young lady who came by at an Offshore Technology Conference and said: ‘Well y’know, with all the well logging technology that’s coming out, your industry is going to be a dying breed.’.
“I replied: ‘On the contrary, anything developed and made by man eventually fails and may trigger an incident of some sort.'”
Gebhardt left school in the 1970s, got involved in the industry and became something of a dab hand in what is known in the trade as “snubbing” . . . basically well intervention.
Wild Well’s founder Joe Bowden gave him the break he really wanted and hired the young Gebhardt in 1983.
“I had some oil and gas experience, probably about seven years at that point, predominantly snubbing. I was working for Otis Engineering, which is a Halliburton company.
“Strangely I still remember my employee number from the 70s, even though I can’t remember things from last week. That type of background gave me a lot of the skill-sets needed to get into well control.”
It was clear from listening to him that Gebhardt was lucky to get into WWC as this was a deadman’s shoes game where vacancies rarely happened other than through retirement.
“So Joe having a slot available for me to get into this business is, in hindsight, pretty fortunate and I love it as much today as I did back then. Of course I have more responsibilities than I did just working in the field, but I still get a kick.”
Gebhardt is among those who fought the massive fires in Kuwait . . . a legacy of Iraq’s attempted invasion led by Saddam Hussein.
“And boy was that an experience. We capped 137 wells and I was one of the team leaders. We had three teams in Kuwait and it took nine months from start to finish. This was not a routine wellhead event.”
Capping Kuwait’s fires was a spectacle watched by millions around the globe in the safety of their homes.
It was tough and on a grand scale, but Gebhardt said every incident presented its challenges, perhaps because of sheer technical difficulty, but quite possibly also political and locational . . . like the Niger Delta.
“There are groups that sabotage wells; all of a sudden they’re burning and then someone like us has to go in and get them back under control.
“It’s tough to send people in there because of the security piece. But you work through those details and get on with the job. ”
Turning to Macondo, Gebhardt said WWC had on average 20 people engaged in the battle to kill the well that had gushed millions of barrels of oil into the marine environment.
“But what many people don’t realise is that, yes we were involved in Macondo, but the phone was still ringing from around the world. Other people had needs. It wasn’t just that one event. Some people lost sight of that.
“We were really stretched. A lot of our guys didn’t get any relief. They could be offshore for 60 days, perhaps coming ashore for a couple of days only before going back.
“Even I had to go catch one job that summer. That was pretty good as it was nice getting out of the office.
“it was a small job, a well that was blowing. A barge had knocked a wellhead off south of New Orleans and the Coastguard got involved. It was the middle of Macondo. And so I took some of our team and went down there. We got that job completed in about four days.”
Gebhardt explained that, on the response side, WWC (a unit of Superior Energy) takes on average about 100 calls a year; not always a fire.
“You have to mobilise. Some last a day or two, some last multi-months. It’s safe to say that we have teams in pretty much all sectors of the world almost on a daily basis . . . Middle East, Kazakhstan, South-east Asia, of course the US where there are lots of jobs because the rig count is so high.”