The chances of a major environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico rose on Earth Day when "[a]n oil rig burning out of control in the Gulf of Mexico sank Thursday morning, with 11 workers still missing and the authorities fearing a potential environmental disaster," the New York Times reported late Thursday. -- The well is 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. -- The Deepwater Horizon disaster is "the biggest blowout of an oil and gas well in the Gulf of Mexico in 30 years," and may be complicated because "the sinking of the rig could potentially put 5,000 feet of piping and other equipment over the hole, making it more difficult to plug," Campbell Robertson and Clifford Krauss said. -- "[H]undreds of thousands of barrels of crude could be potentially released, a worst case that no executive wished to speculate about publicly." -- "[T]he industry has long claimed that big spills are a thing of the past and that improved technologies have lowered the chances of spillage." -- The Financial Times of London held out the hope on Thursday night "that a valve designed to prevent the uncontrolled release of oil had been closed." -- However, "the rig sinking is likely to have broken the pipes connecting the well to the rig, allowing the oil to escape into the water," Sheila McNulty and Ed Crooks said....
OIL RIG SINKS, RAISING FEARS OF MAJOR SPILL
By Campbell Robertson and Clifford Krauss
New York Times
April 22, 2010
NEW ORLEANS -- An oil rig burning out of control in the Gulf of Mexico sank Thursday morning, with 11 workers still missing and the authorities fearing a potential environmental disaster.
Efforts to contain the damage from the burning rig became profoundly more complicated when it sank, leaving a one-by-five-mile sheen of what the authorities said was “crude oil mix.”
“I think it certainly has the potential to be a major spill,” David Rainey, a vice president for Gulf of Mexico exploration for BP, which was leasing the rig, said at a news conference.
Coast Guard helicopters, planes, and patrol boats were in the final 12 hours of search-and-rescue efforts for the missing workers, said Rear Adm. Mary E. Landry, the commander of the Coast Guard’s Eighth District. She said interviews with some of the 115 survivors had indicated to officials that the 11 who were missing may have been “in the vicinity of the explosion,” a view echoed separately in interviews with reporters.
“As time passes,” she said, “the probability of success in locating the 11 missing persons decreases.”
The sinking of the rig, meanwhile, left the scope of the disaster troublingly uncertain. Admiral Landry and officials from BP and Transocean, the Swiss company that owned the giant rig, could not say with certainty whether oil and gas were still emanating from the well underwater, though Adrian Rose, a vice president at Transocean, said the response team “was not able to stem the flow of hydrocarbons” before the rig sank.
“If there is any other oil that’s coming from the well, it would be coming from the subsurface, so it would be coming from below the seabed,” Mr. Rainey said. “The well was just over 18,000 feet deep, and we don’t know from where in that 18,000 feet it would be coming.”
The authorities also do not know if some 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel aboard the rig were now part of the leak, having possibly been released in a series of explosions that responders observed Thursday morning before the rig sank.
Admiral Landry said the sheen on the surface appeared to be residual oil from the explosion Tuesday night and the raging fire that followed. But, she added, “we don’t know what’s going on below the surface of the water.”
The potential for environmental disaster from the spill would be greatest if the oil were to reach the Louisiana coast, some 50 miles away.
Fearing a potential environmental disaster, BP announced Thursday that it was dispatching a flotilla of more than 30 vessels capable of skimming more than 170,000 barrels of oil a day to protect sea lanes and wildlife in the area of the sunken platform.
Suggesting that the rig may be blocking the hole releasing the oil and gas, the oil company also said it was initiating a plan to drill a relief well that could send heavy mud and concrete into the cavity of oil and gas that drilling apparently punctured by accident.
“We are determined to do everything in our power to contain this oil spill,” said Tony Hayward, BP’s chief executive. “There should be no doubt of our resolve to limit the escape of oil and protect the marine and coastal environments.”
Oil industry executives expressed dismay over what some characterize as potentially the biggest blowout of an oil and gas well in the Gulf of Mexico in 30 years.
Industry executives said that there was no telling how much oil and gas would be released from the accident, and that the sinking of the rig could potentially put 5,000 feet of piping and other equipment over the hole, making it more difficult to plug. If the pocket of oil and gas that was punctured by the rig is small, the environmental damage would be minimal and easily controlled, they said.
But if the pocket is large, hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude could be potentially released, a worst case that no executive wished to speculate about publicly. That would not only embarrass the industry, they said, but would also require tankers and other shipping to change course on gulf waters.
The accident may also serve as a disturbing reminder to states like Florida that offshore drilling holds environmental risks, even though the industry has long claimed that big spills are a thing of the past and that improved technologies have lowered the chances of spillage.
The acknowledgment that the missing workers may have been caught in the initial explosion would not have come as a surprise to some of the relatives of survivors, who heard detailed stories of the disaster in emotional phone conversations late Wednesday night.
“The 11 that’s missing, they won’t find them,” said Stanley Murray, whose son, Chad, survived the explosion, having been on the drill floor only moments before it was awash in flames.
The knowledge that some may not come back added a bitter pall to family reunions early Thursday, when buses full of crew members pulled up to an airport hotel near New Orleans where many of their relatives were staying.
“Looking out there, watching the rig burning, knowing they’re out there, it’s a horrible feeling,” said Stenson Roark, 26, an electronics technician from Philadelphia, Miss., who was still wearing his grease-covered red coveralls when he got into the car with his family to head home.
“It was almost 24 hours before I could make contact” with family, Mr. Roark said. He finally reached them through a cellphone that crew members passed around in the rescue vessel. “I held it together pretty good until that phone call,” he said.
The relatives of the missing had little to do but wait. Updates were coming in telephone calls once an hour, or were supposed to be, for Rhonda Burkeen of Philadelphia, Miss., whose husband, Dale, was among the missing. Carolyn Kemp, grandmother of Roy Wyatt Kemp of Monterey, La., was praying, but was already speaking of him in the past tense.
Mary Ellen Kleppinger of Zachary, La., was missing two men: her 38-year-old stepson, Karl Jr., who had been on the rig, and, in more recent hours, her husband, Karl.
“He just left me a note,” Ms. Kleppinger said. “‘Gone looking for Karl. Be home soon.’”
--Jordan Flaherty contributed reporting from New Orleans, and Liz Robbins from New York.
Oil & gas
WORKERS MISSING AFTER GULF RIG SINKS
By Sheila McNulty (Houston) and Ed Crooks (London)
Financial Times (London)
April 22, 2010 (updated Apr. 23)
A drilling rig that had been working for BP sank in the Gulf of Mexico on Thursday, extinguishing a massive fire that was the worst such accident in the region in more than 20 years, leaving some workers still unaccounted for.
BP warned there was a danger of a significant oil spill, although last night there were indications that no more oil was leaking into the water from the well that the rig that had been drilling.
Earlier, Adrian Rose, a vice-president for Transocean, the world’s biggest offshore drilling company, which owned the floating rig, had noted that the companies had not yet been able to stem the flow of hydrocarbons that had been fuelling the fire. However, last night it seemed possible that a valve designed to prevent the uncontrolled release of oil had been closed.
The $500m Deepwater Horizon was hit by an explosion on Tuesday night, thought to have been caused by a blow-out -- a surge of oil under high pressure -- as the rig was being plugged until production plans could be made.
The rig is 400ft by 250ft -- about twice the size of a football field -- and the rig sinking is likely to have broken the pipes connecting the well to the rig, allowing the oil to escape into the water.
Of the 126 workers on board at the time of the blast, 17 were injured, three critically, and 11 were still unaccounted for late on Thursday.
Mr. Rose said witnesses indicated the 11 may not have been able to escape. Authorities said they were likely to search for another 12 hours.
Rear Admiral Mary Landry, U.S. Coast Guard district commander, said a one mile by five mile sheen of crude oil mix had been spotted. Skimmers and barges had been mobilized, as had aircraft that can spread chemicals and break up the oil.
Remote operated vehicles were trying to determine what was going on underwater, Rear Admiral Landry said, though she noted the rig sinking “increases the potential for pollution”.’
Authorities had shut down two nearby pipelines that could be put at risk.
A statement from the White House said the National Response Team had been activated and Unified and Area Commands established near New Orleans to coordinate search and rescue operations and oil spill response efforts.
“The Department of the Interior and the Minerals Management Service as well as the Coast Guard are also working with responsible parties to support their important efforts to secure the pollution sources,” the White House said
Deputy secretary of the interior David Hayes was dispatched to the region to assist with coordination and response.
The accident has raised concerns about offshore oil production in the U.S., which has been seen as having a bright future following recent large discoveries and the plan by president Barack Obama to open more areas of the coast for development.
“The rig fire is a disaster,” said Robin West, chairman of PFC Energy, the consultancy. “This is a test for the industry. The question is whether they will be able to respond and effectively manage the spill to limit environmental damage.”
The accident highlighted questions about BP’s safety record, which has been under scrutiny since the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion, which killed 15 people.
The safety of the rig would have been Transocean’s responsibility, industry sources said, but BP would have had a role in safety oversight.
Authorities said the most similar incident on a semi-submersible happened in September 1984 offshore Louisiana and resulted in four fatalities from a crew of 68.