In letters to developers of proposed well control and containment systems last week, the federal agency overseeing offshore safety made it clear that it will not approve new permits for drilling in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico unless operators have access to systems that can "quickly and effectively contain" future underwater well blowouts.

"Our regulations require operators seeking permits to drill in deepwater to demonstrate access to and the ability to deploy such subsea containment equipment and systems before the Bureau of Ocean, Energy Management, Regulations and Enforcement [BOEM] will approve such permits," wrote BOEM Director Michael R. Bromwich to Houston-based Helix Energy Solution Group, which provides services and equipment solutions to offshore producers worldwide, and Marine Well Containment Co. LLC, a nonprofit industry organization with one goal -- to bolster the capability of producers to contain underwater well blowouts in the Gulf.

Producers have been complaining for months about BOEM's sluggish pace in issuing permits to drill in the deepwater Gulf. Bromwich has shifted at least part of the blame to Helix and Marine Well Containment for not moving quickly enough to keep the BOEM updated on their proposed containment systems.

"The most critical missing piece in the process of approving applications for permits to drill [APD] in deepwater is the demonstration of well control and subsea containment capability. Therefore I ask that you provide a detailed update as to when your proposed containment systems will be operational," he said. Specifically he asked the companies:

Once these questions are fully answered, operators will be able to submit the information on the systems to BOEM, and agency staff "will review and evaluate the sufficiency of this information" and the overall APD, Bromwich said.

Last month Helix said it executed agreements for its Helix Fast Response System (HFRS) to be named as a spill response resource for oil and gas companies operating in the Gulf. The HFRS includes two vessels -- the Helix Producer 1 and the Q4000 -- both of which played a key role in the BP Macondo spill response and are presently operating in the Gulf, Helix said.

Helix reported that it signed an agreement with Clean Gulf Association (CGA), a nonprofit industry group, making the HFRS available for a two-year term to CGA participants in the event of a well blowout in the Gulf in exchange for a retainer fee. In addition to the agreement with CGA, Heliz also has signed separate utilization agreements with 19 CGA participating member companies to date specifying the day rates to be charged should the solution be deployed, it noted.

Separately, BP plc last week joined ExxonMobil Corp., Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips and Royal Dutch Shell plc in developing a rapid-response system to capture and contain oil and natural gas in the event of a deepwater well blowout in the Gulf (see Daily GPI, Feb. 2).

Following the Deepwater Horizon tragedy last April, the original Big Oil sponsors last July launched the Marine Well Containment Co., which, when operational, would be able to mobilize and respond within 24 hours in deepwater depths up to 10,000 feet (see Daily GPI, July 23, 2010). BP, which before the Deepwater Horizon tragedy was the biggest producer in the U.S. GOM, remains one of the largest offshore leaseholders.

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