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On Thursday afternoon, an offshore oil rig owned by Houston-based Fieldwood Energy experienced an explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, killing one contracted worker. The rig was not producing oil at the time, and no oil spilled into the Gulf, according to the company and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).
“This was an isolated incident that has been fully contained,” Fieldwood Energy CEO Matt McCarroll said in a statement on Friday. “The facility was not damaged and there was no pollution that resulted from the incident.”
Here’s everything we know, and everything we don’t know, about the incident so far.
Three workers were injured in the blast, and one was killed
The explosion occurred Thursday afternoon on Fieldwood’s Echo Platform at around 3 p.m., about 12 miles off the coast of Louisiana. One worker — whose name has not yet been released — was killed. Three more workers were injured, and Fieldwood Energy said in a statement Thursday that they were being treated at an unnamed onshore medical facility. Both BSSE and the U.S. Coast Guard responded to the incident.
Fieldwood Energy’s Friday statement said that one of the three workers was seriously injured, but BSEE spokesperson Chauntra Rideaux told ThinkProgress on Friday that all three workers had been released from the medical facility.
Drilling for oil and gas offshore is one of the most dangerous professions in America. Ranked number four on CareerCast’s “10 Worst Jobs,” offshore oil rig workers face risks from fire, falling tools, faulty machinery, and fatigue.
Explosion happened while rig equipment was being cleaned
All four workers were employees of a Louisiana-based company called Turkey Cleaning Services, which specializes in cleaning offshore oil rigs and platforms, according to a press release from Fieldwood on Friday. The employees were cleaning a piece of equipment called a “Heater-Treater” when the explosion occurred, the release said.
A Heater-Treater is a piece of equipment that separates oil from water and other liquids. Malfunctions with this piece of equipment have caused problems before — namely, a fire on an offshore rig about 100 miles off the coast of Louisiana in 2011. In that instance, a “fire tube” within the Heater-Treater collapsed due to high temperatures and corrosion, causing a blast.
For now, Fieldwood is not giving more details into the cause of the equipment failure, and BSEE is not yet sure why either. “There are endless possibilities,” Rodeaux said.
To figure it out, the BSEE has launched an investigation, and said it will provide more information as it becomes available.
The well was ‘non-producing,’ but non-producing wells can still spill
Both BSEE and Fieldwood assured ThinkProgress that the explosion did not cause any oil to spill into the Gulf, noting that the rig was “non-producing.”
“The West Delta 105 “E” platform has not been producing oil or gas for over a week, as the facility was undergoing routine maintenance operations when the incident occurred,” Fieldwood’s statement said. “The explosion that was mentioned in the initial reports was not a well explosion or well blowout … This incident was not related to a drilling operation but, instead, occurred during maintenance operations at the platform.”
But it’s important to note that wells not producing oil can still result in spills. The historic 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico — the largest oil spill in U.S. history — came from an well that was not producing oil. At the time of the explosion, the well was being sealed with cement for temporary abandonment.
One of the most oft-used criticisms of offshore oil drilling is that many offshore platforms remain abandoned and non-producing after drilling and extraction is complete. According to a 2010 Associated Press investigation, there are currently more than 27,000 abandoned oil and gas wells beneath the Gulf of Mexico, and no one is checking to see if they are leaking. Some of the abandoned wells are more than 70 years old, raising questions of how well sealing jobs are holding up to deterioration.
According to the Department of Interior, approximately 70 percent of offshore oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico are idle.
The company responsible is owned by former oil giant executives
The company that owns the Echo Platform, Fieldwood Energy, is not widely known. But Fieldwood’s executives used to be top-level employees of two more well-known companies — Dynamic Offshore Resources, and Apache Corporation. Dynamic Offshore Resources is one of the largest offshore operators on the Gulf of Mexico Shelf, and Apache is a large independent multinational oil company.
Fieldwood receives a huge chunk of its funding from Riverstone Energy Limited, an energy-focused fund of private equity firm Riverstone Holdings LLC. The firm ponied up $600 million in 2012 to form Fieldwood, which aims to be “the leading company” in the Gulf of Mexico, “what we believe has been and will continue to be one of the most prolific oil & gas provinces in the world.”