The executive VP of a company that owns an offshore natural gas rig that suffered a blowout Tuesday is an active critic of stronger offshore drilling regulations. Though federal officials confirmed the gas flow had stopped on Thursday morning, the accident raises serious concerns about the safety improvements taken since the disaster caused by a blowout three years ago aboard the Deepwater Horizon.
On Tuesday morning in the Gulf of Mexico, the Hercules 265 drilling rig had been drilling a natural gas well and when gas began spewing uncontrollably (video) from the well, the crew of the rig tried to use a blowout preventer to shut down the well’s flow of gas. This is the same device that failed to close the out-of-control oil well under the Deepwater Horizon, and the blowout preventer under the Hercules 265 also failed to shut down the flow of gas.
Once the conditions aboard the rig became too dangerous, all 44 workers evacuated on two lifeboats. They watched the uncontrolled gas continue to jet into the atmosphere, and the rig caught fire Tuesday night. It burned through Wednesday, and some time Wednesday evening or Thursday morning, sand or debris shifted underwater and “bridged over“, which seemingly plugged the leaking well. The fire has slowly dissipated as the remaining gas burned up. Ironically, because methane (which is the prime ingredient of natural gas) is such a potent greenhouse gas, the fact that it burned for most of the accident is actually slightly better for the climate and the environment.
There is no guarantee that the natural bridge currently blocking the free flow of gas will not open up again.
Hercules Offshore, which owns the rig that was drilling the well, had been attempting to drill a relief well to lower the pressure on the initial well when the spewing gas stopped. The company may still drill another relief well or pursue a tactic familiar to anyone who followed the Deepwater Horizon disasterL “top kill.”
Since it has been three years since the BP spill, what progress has been made in strengthening safety equipment and protocols on offshore wells?
In May, federal regulators assured the industry that any proposed new rules to strengthen offshore emergency drilling protocols would be implemented with with plenty of time for industry to adapt. Earlier in July, twelve Republican lawmakers sent a letter to James Watson, director of the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement pressing for more input from industry on what they called “sweeping new rules” on blowout preventers and offshore drilling disaster prevention standards.
Hercules Offshore’s executive VP is Jim Noe. Noe is also executive director of the Shallow Water Energy Security Coalition, which said on the three-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster:
The continued, even perpetual, regulatory uncertainty limits long-term business confidence. It also reflects a fundamental misconception: that any new regulation makes things safer than they were before, even if we haven’t fully analyzed the effectiveness of previous regulations. Spending too much time complying with new and ever changing regulations can distract us from ensuring that industry is focusing on holistic and practical risk management.
“Congress still needs to act to ensure that oil companies are drilling safely offshore and that companies are held fully accountable for any spills, including when natural gas is released into the environment. Blowout preventers also need to be failsafe, and this recent incident indicates that they may still be not.”