Gulf rig explosion: Natural gas leaks have stopped, as probe continues

The explosion and fire at a natural gas rig off the Louisiana coast raise new questions about the role of blowout preventers and overall safety of drilling operations in the Gulf.

US Coast Guard/AP
An out-of-control natural gas well burned Wednesday off the coast of Louisiana hours after it ignited following a blowout Tuesday night. On Thursday morning, authorities announced that natural gas leaks had stopped and that the fire was down to a small flame.

The natural gas rig that was burning and leaking off the Louisiana coast is under control, according to federal regulators.

Natural gas has stopped leaking from the well and the fire has decreased to a small flame fueled by residual gas at the top of the well, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) and the Coast Guard announced Thursday. The agencies said the leak stopped due to bridging, a well condition where small pieces of sediment and sand flow into the well path and restrict and ultimately stop the flow.

Investigators are still determining what caused the natural gas blowout and subsequent fire, and don’t expect to have immediate answers. But the accident is already raising questions about the role that blowout preventers played – and whether safety standards in the Gulf Coast have improved since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

The rig’s owner, Hercules Offshore, told The Wall Street Journal that the crew tried to shut down the well using a blowout preventer, but weren’t able to complete the work before they had to evacuate for their safety.

The blowout preventer, designed to shut off out-of-control oil and gas wells, draws particular scrutiny because it was the blowout preventer on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig that failed to work properly, leading to the biggest offshore oil spill in US history.

In 2010, calls were made to improve blowout-prevention equipment and offshore safety practice, but the degree to which effective changes have been made – or need to be made – is still debated.

In April, the commission originally appointed by President Obama to investigate what happened in the Deepwater Horizon explosion and what could be done to prevent another, released a followup report grading the Obama administration, Congress, and the offshore drilling industry on their response to the disaster. 

The administration earned a B, the offshore drilling industry a B-, and Congress a D+.

Frances Beinecke, a member of the commission and president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, explained in an article on the Energy Collective that the administration earned its grade for moving quickly to reorganize criticized federal bureaus and implementing new safety rules, while Congress earned its failing grade for passing only one piece of legislation related to the BP disaster, the Restore Act that directs 80 percent of BP’s fines under the Clean Water Act toward restoration projects in the Gulf.

Others argue that the less new federal regulation the better. Earlier this month, nearly a dozen Republican lawmakers pressed regulators to get input from the industry before proposing new blowout preventer and safety standards, The Wall Street Journal reported. Lawmakers were “concerned that new technology requirements may force energy companies to retire their existing equipment prematurely.”

In April, Ms. Beinecke wrote that both the BSEE and the drilling industry should be doing more about improving blowout preventer safety.

“The bureau is behind, though, in putting in place tougher rules on the design and operation of blowout preventers. That work needs to move forward quickly, to help make this critical piece of last-resort equipment safer and more reliable.

“The oil industry itself has created equipment to help contain a high-pressure blowout in deep water, a direct response to the industry's inability to plug the BP well in a timely way three years ago,” she wrote. “The industry, though, is still dragging its feet on the need to create an independent safety institute to help build a culture that puts safety first, all the time.”

Today's announcement follows earlier reports that the well's owner, Walter Oil & Gas, was planning on building a relief well to stop the flow. Forty-four workers were evacuated from the site Tuesday with no injuries reported.

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