Gas Well Blowout Raises Concerns About Drilling Safety

Jul 25, 2013
Originally published on July 25, 2013 2:55 pm

A natural gas well explosion in the Gulf of Mexico is reviving concerns about drilling safety, three years after the Deepwater Horizon explosion led to the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Forty-four crew members were evacuated Tuesday morning after the well blew out in shallow water, some 55 miles off the coast of Louisiana.

While the cause of the blowout is still under investigation, a key safety measure failed on the rig.

Known as a blowout preventer, the set of valves are meant to close down a well in an emergency to stop the flow of oil and gas. In this case, the equipment was located on board the rig.

A blow-out preventer far below the sea was implicated in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion.


  • Tom Fowler, energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He tweets @HoustonFowler.
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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. The Coast Guard is reporting that a fire on a natural gas rig 55 miles off the coast of Louisiana is now out. And even though natural gas has stopped flowing from the damaged well, the incident is reigniting concerns about drilling safety just three years after the Deepwater Horizon explosion led to the biggest offshore oil spill in U.S. history. For more, we're joined by Tom Fowler, energy reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He's with us from KUHF in Houston. And, Tom, do we know the cause of the blowout?

TOM FOWLER: That's really hard to say. What we know is this drilling rig was there - it was actually drilling off of an existing well drilling a sidetrack well, basically drilling off to the side to hit another pocket of gas or another formation of gas somewhere. And it sounds like they're - so they're doing this and I think they're somewhere around 7,000 feet or so when they apparently unexpectedly hit some gas that just suddenly came up. They - normally, as you're drilling, you're supposed to be able to read these gauges that tell you what's the pressure coming out of the well. So either somebody missed some readings that were indicating it or just came so fast they weren't able to keep the gas from coming uncontrollably to the surface.

HOBSON: And unlike Deepwater Horizon, this was gas, not oil.

FOWLER: It's - in some ways, it's easier to deal with. Well, it's more dangerous in terms of sparking and exploding. But environmentally, it's a little bit more benign. It's - usually, it dissipates into the air a lot more quickly, and on the surface, it kind of dissipates into the water as well. You know, I think it'd be the kind of thing that would violate the Clean Air Act certainly. It doesn't stick around the same way oil will. So that's one fortunate thing about the incident versus Deepwater Horizon.

HOBSON: And we're hearing about this blowout preventer again. It feels like deja vu. But this was exactly the same kind of safety measure that was supposed to work back with the BP oil spill and it didn't. And it's at play here, and it looks like it didn't work here either.

FOWLER: That's what appears. Now, blowout preventers, these are these big - everything from the size of a refrigerator to a size of a minibus, these valves, depending on where you're doing it that are supposed to either they close around the outside of the drill pipe or they cut right through it to seal it off in an emergency. With the Deepwater Horizon, their blowout preventer was, you know, there on the bottom of the sea about a mile down. And it activated but didn't cut all the way through the drill pipe and thus it left it open. And that's why you had the oil spill for months.

In the case of this, it - they did try to activate it, I've been told. And it sounds like the shear rams, the thing that's actually cut - would cut all the way through and seal it off started to work but just stopped for some reason. It's still hard to say why. They tried to do all they could. And then when it got too dangerous to be on the rig with all that cloud of gas, they had to abandon.

HOBSON: But weren't the standards on these blowout preventers tightened after Deepwater Horizon?

FOWLER: In a way, they - there's a number of drilling regulation changes that included upgrades to things like documentation for blowout preventer inspections. It required third-party inspections of blowout preventers to say that they could indeed shear through the drill pipe. And there's a lot more tightening of things. But there's really a big overhaul of the O.P. standards that was expected. That's been stalled. There could be standards up by the end of the year. But in the meanwhile, the industry had kind of moved on. The American Petroleum Institute has these voluntary standards that they've toughened that companies are supposed to be following. But, yeah, it just hasn't happened yet, that we've had a massive overhaul that everyone was expecting soon after.

HOBSON: Well, maybe this will spur some action. Tom, before we let you go, what's next for this rig? What happens from here?

FOWLER: Well, probably what would happen is they still have to get this well sealed up and either they could possibly do it from the surface using other equipment or they might still go ahead and drill a relief well. There's another rig that was being moved into the area. They applied for a permit to basically drill down and intercept this thing and just pump a lot of cement and lock it in place. It's hard to say what they'll do next. It depends on how, you know, what kind of access they have to the well from the rig itself. But it seems like the rig for the most part has survived despite part of it pretty much melting into the ocean.

HOBSON: Tom Fowler is an energy reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He joined us from Houston. Tom, thanks so much.

FOWLER: My pleasure.

HOBSON: And we're back in a minute. HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.