Response crews deal with natural gas well blowout

A drilling rig that caught fire late Tuesday after a natural gas well blew out about 55 miles off the coast of Grand Isle could continue to burn in the Gulf for several weeks while response crews work to permanently shut in the well, but the drawn-out drama is not expected to have devastating, long-term consequences, several industry and environmental experts said Wednesday.

Owing to a variety of factors, officials said the accident does not have the potential to become an environmental disaster of major magnitude. Among those factors: the well was in relatively shallow water; it is spewing natural gas rather than heavy crude oil; and all of the workers on the rig were safely evacuated.

“It doesn’t pose the kind of lingering, toxic concerns that an oil spill does,” said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science. “The kinds of concerns about flooding oil and toxic effects and so on aren’t the same. The natural gas that’s released is probably dissipating, most of it is coming up and entering the atmosphere and not staying in the ocean.”

The U.S. Coast Guard and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, which regulates the oil and gas industry, are overseeing efforts to secure the well and put out the fire on the rig.

The Coast Guard said the fire broke out at about 10:45 p.m. Tuesday. During a fly-over to examine the damage Wednesday, federal regulators said they saw no sheens on the water surface in the area near the well.

The fly-over also revealed that beams supporting the derrick and the rig floor collapsed over the rig structure as the blaze continued. Two firefighting vessels on the scene at the time were relocated. A third vessel, with better firefighting capability, was expected to arrive Wednesday, officials said.

Walter Oil & Gas Corp., the Houston oil and production company that was drilling the well, is moving a jack-up rig to the site with the aim of drilling a relief well, a permanent means of shutting down the well, authorities said.

The Coast Guard is enforcing a five-mile safety zone around the rig.

“At this point, I think it appears to be of no threat to the environment or to human life or to sea life for that matter,” Jefferson Parish President John Young said about the burning rig.

One local observer of the oil and gas industry said the company has few options other than drilling a relief well.

“They don’t have any choice right now,” said Eric Smith, an associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute.

Smith believes it could take 30 to 60 days for the relief well to be drilled. During that time, the rig will likely continue to burn as the natural gas from deep below the seabed rises to the surface. He estimates that the rig is “a total loss, and that’s probably a $50 million bill on somebody’s tab.”

The well is in about 154 feet of water. Crews were drilling the well at about 8:45 a.m. Tuesday on a platform in the South Timbalier area of the Gulf, doing completion work to prepare for production, when the well blew out. All 44 workers aboard were safely evacuated, the company said. Walter previously reported that 47 workers were evacuated, but later revised that number.

Loyola University professor Robert Thomas, who chairs the school’s Center for Environmental Communication, said the carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere is a concern, but compared the ignited rig to flares used by refineries to burn off emissions as part of normal plant operations.

“On a worldwide basis, these kinds of things are going on all the time around the world in the oil and gas business, and you know, it’s probably like a dot on the map,” Thomas said. “But in our state, we worry about it very much because we have so much potential exposure to things like this, but mostly when it goes into the air, its dissipated, but it then becomes part of the greenhouse gas issue.”

The cause of the accident is under investigation.

Federal regulators approved Walter’s permit for the work June 25, federal records show. The drilling rig, owned by Hercules Offshore, the Gulf’s largest operator of jackup rigs, was built in 1982 and is named Hercules 265. The blowout preventer control system, the device designed to slice through the drill pipe in a last-ditch effort to close the well during an emergency, was approved in November 2010, records show. But the system, raised above the water’s surface, failed to close off the well.

As details emerged Wednesday, local officials and industry experts said that although the fire could linger for up to two months the impact of this blowout will pale in comparison to 2010’s Macondo leak.

“It’s always a big deal if it’s your well, or your rig,” Smith said. “I think this one is a far smaller problem, if you will, than the Macondo well.”

One striking similarity: The apparent failure of the blowout preventer. Smith said he was “a little bit confused” about why the equipment didn’t work.

Smith believes that the rig crew “hit a high-pressure gas pocket, and the mud weight they were using for the drilling completion wasn’t adequate to contain the pressure.”

Still fresh in everyone’s mind across the Gulf Coast is the Deepwater Horizon disaster. The drilling rig in that accident, which was owned by Transocean Ltd. and leased to British oil giant BP, caught fire and exploded in the Gulf in April 2010. Eleven workers were killed in the catastrophe, which caused one of the worst environmental disasters in the nation’s history.

Boesch, a New Orleans native who was a member of the presidential commission that investigated the BP oil leak, said the two incidents are “quite different, because of the different environmental effects, but on the other hand, are similar because it reminds us that we’ve got to pay more attention to safety.”

“This is just another indication that we still have more work to do to ensure safety in offshore drilling,” he said.

Young, who was in Grand Isle on Wednesday for the Jefferson Parish Council’s annual meeting there, said he has been in contact with agencies coordinating the response work, and said they believe “some sand had built up and made the friction” in the effort to control the well Tuesday, which may have ignited the fire.

“At this point, they’re going to let it burn out,” Young said.

Young said the accident would not affect the annual International Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, slated for this weekend.

“Certainly, we need to look at what happened, why did it happen, and what can be done to prevent that type of thing from happening in the future,” he said.