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Part 1-Strategy and planning: Emergency management tools such as prior remedial contingency planning and a designated task force help those responsible for emergencies perform critical tasks confidently, effectively and efficiently

John W. Wright, John W. Ely and L. Flak (former Wright, Boots & Coots employee) Blowout Advisors, John Wright Co., Houston

This article is the first installment of a series designed to help operators understand and manage blowout control and intervention. Articles will be authored by individuals from various companies who are authorities in a particular field and will be presented in approximately the order outlined here.

Operators need blowout contingency plans (BCPs) and blowout task force (BTF) organizations to facilitate blowout control. Loss of experienced personnel combined with increased regulatory oversight require that operators carefully plan how to accomplish blowout control. There are two opinions among operators about detailed contingency planning. Those who have never needed it avoid the issue with faint praise and lip service. Those who use it say that good organization and a well-crafted plan are key to success and more important than equipment, theory or individuals. 



Recently, the oil industry has been under tremendous pressure to operate more efficiently, which led to massive in-house reorganizations, decentralization with fewer specialists and closer risk sharing with drilling contractors and service companies. Fortunately, blowouts are less common, because modified company organizations make replacing lost experience difficult and impractical, if not impossible.

In view of environmental and safety issues faced by operators today, lost experience makes it imperative for operators to have contingency plans detailing how blowout control should be managed on a corporate or "world-wide" level, and in local operating areas. This need first re-surfaced in the North Sea in 1990. After some major North Sea blow outs over about two years, operators and regulatory authorities began to re evaluate emergency response plans to ensure that lessons from these events were incorporated by all operating companies. This study indicated that all operators had plans for responding to immediate emergencies of personnel evacuation, firefighting, and oil spill containment, but few were prepared for regaining control of a blowout.

Probability of a blowout might be small, but consequences can be catastrophic, so additional "problem solving" BCPs and BTFs are being implemented. Operators and regulatory bodies are investigating strategies to increase overall preparedness through contingency plans aimed specifically at regaining control of blowouts. This effort includes surface, subsea and sub surface intervention.

Lack of planning and poor management has resulted in concession loss, loss of multi-well platforms, relief well blowouts and other mishaps. A good plan can help replace lost experience. 


Operators must first define a corporate philosophy for blowout intervention response and management, Fig. 1. Will projects be managed locally or by a corporate team? Can local districts manage blowout control operations and continue normal operations? Since insurance claims are generally not paid until blowout control projects are completed, how will local districts finance and handle potentially massive capital expenditures?

Questions like these drive the initial effectiveness and efficiency of blowout control operations and the strategy behind how to proceed. Strategy and philosophy should be structured on a worldwide basis, but tailored to each operating area, depending on local resources and magnitude of emergency. The importance of these decisions should be equal to, and coordinated with, other corporate crisis management strategies such as those for large oil spills.

Once sufficiently developed, the strategy should be reviewed and approved by top management. This step is critical to ensure that well thought out local plans do not get short circuited by corporate vetoes in a crisis. 


Successful planning and execution of complicated blowout intervention operations requires careful coordination of specialized technical disciplines. Developing a strategy is an iterative process, which requires evaluating alternatives, analyzing risks and tradeoffs before reaching agreement between operator, partners and regulatory authorities. Decisions carry substantial safety, environmental and economic implications. Persons or companies responsible for intervention can perform with confidence if proper remedial contingency planning is performed.

Blowouts and subsequent intervention techniques are inherently different, making it impractical to cover all possibilities even in specific plans and execution procedures. However, structured guidelines with examples are essential to avoid overlooking critical steps in development of a final strategy for blowout control operations, where many decisions are made under stressful conditions.

There are two BCP types, general and specific. General plans are strategy manuals without specific well or site information that outline how a particular operator will respond to blowouts. They are used as a training guide or workbook for developing specific plans. Specific plans use strategy from general plans for particular areas and blowout scenarios, and go through the complete intervention process on paper.

Effective BCPs should include the following:

Response plans must include directives for activating intervention BTF, and mobilizing or designating a project manager. Blowout intervention projects pose special problems unique to hazardous operations. Any number of blowout scenarios and unforeseen challenges can occur. BCPs are a pre-crisis planning process to gather, based on existing experience, available input on assumptions and strategy to reduce uncertainty. A systematic planning strategy must be adopted to evaluate risks.

The first priority and single most important factor to assure successful blowout intervention is to quickly organize a focused team and manage the right mix of operational and technical professionals. Most problems can be attributed to misconceptions, and lack of communication, leadership and experience, rather than technical factors. 


A properly structured BTF is key to controlling blowouts. BTF organization depends on location, blowout classification and other factors. Is it a simultaneous surface and relief well operation? Is it a platform, in deep water? Is it oil pollution? What is the project manager's background? What immediate resources are available? What blowout and relief well specialists will be used?

Support of other ongoing operations must be considered. Night operations on relief wells or snubbing jobs, logistical, fabrication and maintenance operations must be considered. Task force members should be solely dedicated to blowout control and may need relief. Critical BTF team members should be pre-specified for each district. Fig. 2 shows a BTF organization chart for simultaneous surface and subsurface blowout control operations.

A BTF mobilization plan is needed. This should include who activates a BTF (VP operations, area manager, drilling manager). The first step is to select the project manager and mobilize a blowout specialty company. Once in place, the project manager assists in selecting and mobilizing corporate technical, relief well and service company specialists. A team is formed to analyze the blowout situation and devise an intervention strategy. Once a strategy is chosen, the team and over all organization is reorganized to accomplish the task.

Specify the best company people (line and research) and locate top out side specialists. Make emotional decisions now. Hear out vendor proposals and prices. Select a firefighter, mud company, relief well specialist and directional drilling company, and logistics and special service vendors. Tell chosen companies they have been selected and require them to be pre pared. Pre-need arrangements distribute necessary incentives and encourage service companies to make contingency plans. This ensures quicker, better decisions from qualified, motivated personnel.

Table 1. Offshore site survey data
General Area Well Specifics
  • Platform or structure damage 
  • Overall situation (stable or degenerating) 
  • Wellhead and conductor condition (vertical) 
  • Wellhead access (easy or possible) 
  • Debris removal required 
  • Sea depth, visibility, currents and waves 
  • Current weather conditions 
  • Surface vessels on location 
  • Available surface equipment 
  • Safety and risk considerations 
  • Blowing wells and wells on fire 
  • Blowout fluids and gases 
  • Video of blowout condition and intensity 
  • Blowout fluid exit path description 
  • Bubble plume description (subsea blowouts) 
  • Heat radiation estimates 
  • Pollution and oil spill summary 
  • Bathymetry and shallow seismic (1 mi. radius) 
  • Video and ROV information 


The next step, after organizing the BTF, is description of the current situation and events leading up to the blowout. This requires careful data analysis by different specialists, particularly in underground or subsea blowouts. Accurate information is critical, if an appropriate, timely strategy is to be devised and implemented. It is better to spend a few days analyzing data before intervention operations than to react immediately with assumptions.

To facilitate analysis, certain data needs to be quickly gathered and properly documented while organizing the task force. This can be divided into two functions, office and field or site survey. Immediately after blowout, a site survey is needed to determine BTF requirements and extent of damage, fire and pollution extent.

In the office. Engineers and technicians can start compiling data, well schematics and comprehensive reports on events leading up to the blowout. Then update installation drawings, highlighting damage, changes and areas where surveys and data collection are required.

Site surveys. Project managers should appoint a safety coordinator familiar with the platform or rig as quickly as possible. He is responsible for assuring site survey crew safety and monitoring all plans, activities and safety equipment before proceeding. Initial concerns are fire, poisonous gas, explosion hazards (from accumulated combustible gas, processing equipment, fuel and wellheads), structure stability (degenerated by heat and explosions), diving and other hazards. Crews may not be able to re-enter the platform or rig immediately to ascertain condition or gather data. Experienced firefighting and blowout teams should be used in survey crews and persons responsible for coordinating surveys and data acquisition should be named in BCPs. Table 1 lists site survey data from an offshore blowout.

Main files. A project work file should incorporate all relevant project documentation. Well organized, clearly marked and up to date files should be available to the task force at all times. Copies should be made of all important documents and kept in a separate file in case of loss. The working file should include the following:

Modifications may be made to fit existing document control structures.

Document control. A major blowout intervention project hastily organized in a few days with many people involved generates hundreds of documents. If not controlled from the beginning, documents may become lost, disorganized, late, out of order; or they might not get to the proper people. This means personnel may not be working from the same or latest plans, creating technical confusion. In addition, insurance companies, government or regulatory agencies, quality assurance and safety managers, and top management of the operating company and partners require certain documents to make major decisions. Reports submitted outside the task force should be routed through document control. Document control will transmit them with a formal transmittal. All outside correspondence or reports should be authorized by the project manager. Formal reports to be handed out in meetings with people from outside the task force should go through this process before the meeting.

Audit trail. A proper audit trail should be set up at the beginning of the project before things get out of hand. A document control center should be established to serve only the intervention project. There should be at least one person in this group capable of under standing the documents, so that they are sorted, passed on and filed correctly. Control responsibility should not be left to unskilled clerks. Document control duties include:


The BTF must look at the short term and concentrate on immediate problems and current operations. On major blowouts, particularly in instances of public evacuation and pollution, operators should establish emergency response rooms and emergency groups independent of BTFs.

Emergency response group. This group looks at long term plans, concentrating on all other aspects of the emergency, media coordination, plan critiques and reviews. Emergency response groups must see the "big picture" and consider alternative strategies, planning what to do if current plans do not work. It should be a small group of local and corporate managers with representatives from working interest partners who meet regularly with BTF project manager and blowout advisor. At least one group member should have a strong drilling background. Meetings should be short with organized agendas that include:

The first four items are generally presented by BTF project manager and blowout advisor. Emergency response rooms should have all blowout data obtained by the BTF and a copy of the project work file.

Trial runs. After a local district pre pares a BCP and determines BTF members, a drill based on a probable blowout scenario detailed in the BCP is recommended. Specific circumstances and data from an actual prior blowout can be used effectively as the basis for this drill. Technical background can be provided to make drills realistic. In one instance, BTF participants were assembled on a workday without prior notice and no initial knowledge that this was a drill. Actual video and photographs obtained from a past blowout were used. Circumstances of that blowout were applied to a well that was currently drilling. The BCP was consulted, and contractor/vendor call-outs were made based on initial mobilization plans.

Review.A critique session is held after a drill. Insight gained from trial-runs about the plan, team effectiveness, critical services, equipment and material availability is incorporated in an iterative process. BCP and initial mobilization plans are changed according to what is learned. 


Once a BTF is organized and as much relevant data as possible has been gathered, the team can evaluate various interventions. Each alternative and critical factors for making comparisons must be understood by the team.

Implementation. Once intervention options have been analyzed and a course of action chosen, the BTF should be reorganized to implement the plan using available resources. This means organizing several small, sub-task forces (surface and relief well) for detailed planning, equipment procurement, modification and manufacturing, operations, kill procedures, safety, documentation and administration. Many blowout problems can be traced to poor initial decisions. Pre planning avoids competitive pressures and personal attachments, allowing operators time to review competing proposals. While reviews are underway, an organized team is already moving toward a possible solution.

Example response. Kuwait 1991, the largest blowout control operation in history, was pre-planned. In October 1990, Kuwait Oil Co. (KOC) recognized that Iraq would blowup oil wells. BCPs were made in the Houston offices of O'Brien-Goins-Simpson. KOC's drilling manager Saud Al Nashmi was BTF project manager, and Larry H. Flak was blowout advisor. Plans based on several scenarios listed required services, materials and equipment. Blowout control budgets were prepared, and contracts were negotiated and signed with critical service, supply and support vendors before Iraq blew up the wells in late February 1991. Effectiveness of pre planning efforts was demonstrated by the capping of all 698 blowouts between March 4 and November 8 1991 (250 days).   

Coming Next

Logistics. The weak link in most blowout control operations is logistics and support. Contingency plans that detail needs, and source required materials, equipment and services from pre-contracted vendors near the blowout are key to overcoming this road block. Transportation, communication, financial aspects and contractual issues are reviewed. Current status of blowout insurance, including requirements, application and potential for reduced premiums are also covered.
Next Article

Literature Cited

Kletz, Trevor; " Lessons from disaster: How organizations have no memory and accidents recur," U.K. Institute of Chemical Engineers, p. 180.  

The authors

John W. Wright is president of John Wright Co., an engineering firm providing blowout intervention and control work; relief well planning, execution and supervision services; and general contracting for well abandonment or re-entry. He joined Schlumberger Offshore Services in 1979 and later managed Eastman-Christensen relief wen teams from 1986 to 1989 before forming his own company. He has authored numerous papers on relief-wells, precision directional drilling and ranging. Mr. Wright has a BS in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University.

John W. Ely is a blowout advisor affiliated with John Wright Co. He formed Ely and Associates in 1991 to concentrate on fracture design, quality control and supervision. He began work with Halliburton in 1965. he developed fracturing fluids, served as technical advisor and supervised well kill operations worldwide. He joined Nowsco Services, in 1980, as engineering manager of R&D and products. In 1985, Ely became stimulation technology VP for Holditch and Associates. Mr. Ely holds a BS degree in chemistry from Oklahoma State University.

L. Flak is a former John Wright Company employee.