UPDATE: On July 25, the well “bridged over” and the fire is now out. Hercules is expected to drill a relief well to completely kill the run-away well. See the most recent update from GMC member SkyTruth here.
July 24, 2013 @ 3:58 pm – Around midday yesterday, (Tuesday, July 23) a natural gas blowout occurred at a jackup drill rig, the Hercules 265, operating in shallow water in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana (South Timbalier Block 220). All of the workers — more than 40 — were safely evacuated. The rig, operated by Hercules Offshore at a well owned by Walter Oil and Gas corporation, was enveloped in a cloud of gas, which ignited around 11 pm last night and as far as we know, remains on fire.
So far, official statements have only referred to gas leaking from the well, and a small sheen was reported around the platform – probably a thin slick of highly volatile natural-gas condensate. However, the report submitted to the Coast Guard’s National Response Center identified the material being spilled as “CRUDE OIL” and estimated that “APPROXIMATELY 7 BARRELS AN HOUR” was leaking from the unsecured well. We do not know at this time if this discrepancy is a transcription error from the phoned-in report, or an indicator of something more serious.
This incident comes in quick succession to another blowout that happened in the Ship Shoal area last week, yet another reminder that drilling is an inherently risky activity. Options for controlling the blowout are now a lot more limited, since the rig can’t be occupied by well-control specialists. Eventually the well might collapse on itself, “bridging over” and shutting off the flow of natural gas. Otherwise a long and complicated intervention might be required, such as the drilling of a relief well — the solution required to kill BP’s runaway Macondo well in 2010, Chevron’s fatal blowout off Nigeria in 2012, and the months-long blowout and massive oil spill off Australia at the Montara platform in 2009. Either way, the rig is certainly a total loss.
GMC member SkyTruth saw nothing unusual at the site on yesterday’s MODIS satellite images, which were taken in early afternoon, long before the fire began. Today’s images might reveal more, although if the leak is only gas, we do not expect to see any significant slick on the water. Hopefully, this well is just a gas producer. Otherwise the situation could be gravely worse, from an environmental and economic perspective.
We have questions, as usual: Was the blowout preventer (BOP) engaged? If not, why not? If so, why did it fail to do its job? Should federal regulators speed up the implementation of new BOP standards? Would these new standards have addressed the problem in this case?