The Beacon

Workers Evacuated As Another ‘Out-of-Control’ Gulf Rig Leaks Methane Gas

(Photo: J. Stephen Conn)

Last Thursday, a natural gas well operating off the coast of Louisiana began leaking methane gas into the air. Given the recent number of large number of spills and leaks taking place on Gulf rigs, it’s hard to believe that the federal government is now considering allowing drilling to take place in the Atlantic Ocean. Clearly, the government is more concerned with increased drilling rather than ensuring safety of our workers and the environment.

As of Friday, the well was still out-of-control as workers on the Louisiana rig attempted to cut the flow of natural gas. The damage is so serious that Rowan Companies Plc, the company drilling the well, has called an outside well-control expert to the site to address the escaping methane gas. They also evacuated 42 workers from the offshore rig, while 37 stayed on in an effort to stop the leak.

Unlike previous Gulf spills, the current incident does not pollute with the traditional oil that is so visible on the ocean’s surface. Instead, colorless and odorless methane gas seeped into the environment, making visible environmental degradation difficult to assess. Methane, the second-most prevalent greenhouse gas, is particularly dangerous because it is so potent. Pound for pound, methane’s impact on climate change is more than 20 times greater than carbon dioxide. It’s unknown how much methane drilling operations and accidents like this one release into the atmosphere each year.

The current leak regrettably reminds us of previous occurrences in the Gulf of Mexico, where offshore drilling operations resulted in environmental damage and threatened worker safety.

Just last year, on July 23, the Hercules Offshore drilling platform #265 experienced a blowout when the crew hit an unexpected pocket of gas, causing a massive explosion. Forty-four workers were evacuated and the natural gas leak resulted in a surface sheen in the surrounding water.

A year before that, a November 2012 explosion on an offshore drilling rig owned by Black Elk, Inc. killed three workers, injured multiple others, and created a large oil sheen on the ocean’s surface. The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement’s investigation into this explosion revealed that the safety culture on the rig at the time of the incident was "poor at best."

Finally, the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill caused the worst environmental disaster in American history. The incident killed 11 workers and released nearly five million barrels of oil and gas into the Gulf of Mexico. Even as we near the four-year anniversary of the spill, the Gulf ecosystem is still feeling the effects of such a massive environmental disaster. 

Stories like these are all too familiar when it comes to offshore oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, our government is pushing forward with new efforts to expand offshore drilling into Atlantic coast waters. Similar incidents that pollute air and water, and endanger our offshore rig workers, are going to be more common if this expansion occurs, especially considering that natural gas drilling is likely to take place in the Atlantic.

Currently, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is preparing its Final Environmental Impact Statement, which will be released later this month, analyzing the effects of seismic blasting in the Atlantic Ocean. Seismic testing is the first step to offshore oil and gas drilling off the East Coast, which has obviously not been made safer as evidenced by the recent blowouts and accidents.

We owe our East Coast communities a vibrant ecosystem, free from harmful seismic testing, rig explosions, oil spills, and gas leaks. The tourism and fishing industries deserve a healthy ocean that will protect their livelihoods for generations to come, a livelihood that, unfortunately, is under constant attack from dangerous offshore drilling practices. 


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