NEW ORLEANS -- A Gulf of Mexico rig crew tried to activate their blowout preventer’s shear rams to cut a pipe and shut off the well before they were forced to flee Tuesday, sources close to the investigation told WWL-TV.
But for reasons that investigators will now try to determine, the device didn’t stem the flow of natural gas that caught fire 15 hours later and melted portions of the cantilevered jack-up rig Wednesday.
The uncertainty over the blowout preventer brought back images of the devastating BP Macondo well blowout of April 20, 2010, but officials for Walter Oil & Gas, owners of the latest blown-out well, were quick to dismiss the comparisons.
“This is certainly not a Macondo-like incident,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for Walter. “There are many, many differences, both in terms of volume and the resulting impact on the environment.”
Indeed, the Walter well in South Timbalier Block 220, about 55 miles southwest of Grand Isle, bears little resemblance to the BP well that spewed oil and gas for months and polluted Gulf waters a mile deep.
Tuesday’s blowout happened in shallow 154-foot waters, and the blowout preventer sits not on the sea floor but within the crew's reach above the water’s surface.
But like with Macondo, the crew was at the bottom of a well, pulling a pipe back out of the hole when something went seriously wrong. Also, the crew on the Hercules 256 jack-up rig, which was drilling for Walter, had about 30 minutes to try to fix things before the unwanted incursion of natural gas turned into a full-fledged blowout, sources told WWL-TV.
Eric Smith of the Tulane Energy Institute said that also similar to BP, the Walter well had to suffer multiple failures, before the BOP ever was involved, to have experienced such a blowout.
“Something went wrong, either mechanical failures or people failures,” Smith said. “But the way these wells are designed you’re supposed to have redundancy in terms of pressure control. … What’s probably going to show up is that this thing failed, they probably could have controlled it but then something else failed, and something else failed behind that.”
Kennedy said Walter is focused on controlling the well and the fire, and they will address what led to the accident later.
There may be some debate, in fact, over the best way to proceed with firefighting and well control efforts. The federal offshore safety agency said Wednesday evening that crews are using a "water curtain" to provide heat protection for the rig but it is not designed to extinguish the fire.
Wild Well has been hired to work on well control, and Hercules Offshore said it’s ready to send another jack-up rig to begin drilling a relief well, but hasn’t determined if that’s necessary yet. That decision, though, may have already been made. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said it expects Walter to file for a relief well permit Wednesday evening.
They may be able to let the fire burn itself out if the reservoir of natural gas can be depleted quickly. Or, the fire may persist for another 60 days while the relief well is being drilled to intercept the well and plug it from below.
Smith said that also may prove more environmentally sound because the carbon dioxide created by the fire is far less damaging than the methane gas that was being released before the fire ignited.
Also, the condensate product of the gas that can enter the water dissipates very quickly, Smith said. There was a small sheen on the water Tuesday but it appeared to not be an issue Wednesday.
Still, the Hercules jack-up rig has suffered major damage as the cantilevered section melted in the hot flames. The blowout preventer has also fallen over, but is still in-tact on the platform above the water. And the thick column legs of the rig remain structurally sound, Kennedy said.
Smith pointed out that the investigation into what went wrong should be easier than the one for BP because fewer people – 44 crew members, rather than 126 on board Deepwater Horizon rig when it exploded – are involved and all of them escaped unscathed. At Macondo, 11 men, most of them on the key drilling team, didn’t survive to tell their side of what happened.
And depending on what happens with the fire, which shot flames 60 feet in the air Wednesday, the evidence should be better preserved in this case.
Smith did say he is concerned about the impact of this incident, and a shallow-water well leak two weeks ago, on the shallow-water drilling industry, which has been losing revenues to on-shore shale gas production.
Hercules Vice President Jim Noe has been an outspoken critic of President Obama’s blanket approach to tightening oil and gas regulations across the Gulf. He has argued that shallow-water wells are not nearly as dangerous as deepwater ones like Macondo.
Smith said that’s true, but shallow wells are still complex systems that can fail, and a handful of incidents can seem to wipe away thousands of safely drilled wells – even though an analysis by WWL-TV found that Walter Oil & Gas has a better-than-average safety record. Government inspectors cited it for only six issues out of 270 components reviewed in 2012.
“The firm has a good reputation, Hercules has a good reputation, but when you’re dealing with things in the thousands, it only takes one problem to really set things back,” Smith said.