Covering Louisiana

Jul 24, 2013 7:12 PM by Chris Welty

Rig Still Burns as Officials Seek Answers

Crews are fighting a fire at a natural gas well in the Gulf of Mexico.

As crews battle the blaze on the Hercules Rig, part of it is collapsing into the Gulf because of extreme heat. The fire ignited before eleven o'clock last night after a blowout earlier Tuesday morning.

The Coast Guard says a crew preparing a well for production hit an unexpected pocket of gas about 60 miles southwest of Grand Isle. More than 40 workers were evacuated from the rig and no injuries are reported.

There's no word yet on when the gas leak will be shut off.

The Hercules 265 was built in 1982 and has not had any serious accidents before. That's according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. The rig is owned by Hercules Offshore which is a contractor for exploration and production company Walter Oil & Gas.

Tuesday's blowout occurred at a well where workers were using a portable drilling rig to complete a "sidetrack well." The goal during sidetracking is to drill a secondary hole away from an original wellbore. Steve Maley with Badger Oil says sidetracking is a routine process in the Gulf of Mexico and is done for a variety of reasons.

"Sometimes it's done because there is a problem in the existing well and sometimes it's done because the existing well has depleted or run its use for life," said Maley.

Usually sidetracking happens in a drilling well if the pipe becomes stuck and Maley says, "They'll cut a hole in the side of the original well and drill to a sidetrack location."

So far, officials haven't said if the sidetracking operation is the cause of the Hercules blowout.

Walter Oil & Gas Corporation was the 12th largest producer of Natural Gas in the Gulf of Mexico last year.

This isn't the first fire under Walter Oil's watch. Two unrelated rigs reported fires in 2010, 2009 and 1997. Those were all caused by equipment failures or human error, according to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

Experts say the blowout and fire won't necessarily carry much of an environmental risk. Unlike 2010's Deepwater Horizon blowout, the Hercules 265 is a shallow-water rig exploring for natural gas, not crude oil.

Officials say they're seeing no sheen near the well during flyovers of the area. That indicates that gas is burning off without releasing oil or other hydrocarbons, which are sometimes found in gas wells, into the water.

Several scientists say natural gas poses much less of an environmental threat to the gulf than crude oil would pose.

Walter Oil & Gas has mostly been free of serious issues on its rigs and platforms. It has paid one $15,000 fine after BSEE discovered an unattended, non-barricaded open hole on a facility in 2011.

BSEE conducted 45 inspections on 103 Walter facilities in 2012, which resulted in three non-compliance warnings, four serious violations, including two that required the facility to shut down until the issue was corrected.

During 30 inspections of 21 facilities in 2011, 16 warnings were handed out and there were 10 serious issues, including four that required a facility to temporarily shut down.

In 2010, 36 inspections of 27 facilities resulted in 9 warnings and four serious violations, including one that required a facility to temporarily shut down.

Chris Welty



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