47 rescued from Gulf rig after natural gas blowout

Published on Tuesday, 23 July 2013 16:24 - Written by

KEVIN McGILL, The Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Natural gas flowed uncontrolled from a well of the Louisiana coast on Tuesday after a blowout that forced the evacuation of 47 workers aboard a drilling rig, authorities said.

No injuries were reported in the midmorning blowout and there was no fire as of Tuesday afternoon at the site, about 55 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. It remained unclear how or when the well would be shut down.

"According to federal officials, there is no imminent danger at this time," said Kevin Davis, head of the Louisiana governor's homeland security office.

Still, the Coast Guard kept nautical traffic out of an area within 500 meters of the site, where the spewing gas posed a fire hazard. The Federal Aviation Administration restricted aircraft up to 2,000 feet above the area.

The federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said inspectors flying over the site soon after the blowout saw a light sheen covering an area about a half-mile by 50 feet. However, it was dissipating quickly.

The bureau said the blowout happened south of Grand Isle, where the water depth was reported as 154 feet.

Earlier this month, a gas well flowed for several days before being sealed off the Louisiana coast.

In 2010, an oil rig exploded off the state's coast, leading to a blowout that spewed millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico in the worst offshore disaster in the United States.

Coastal officials stressed that Tuesday's blowout would be nothing of that magnitude.

Chris Roberts, a member of the Jefferson Parish Council in south Louisiana, said the travel restrictions might pose an inconvenience for participants in an upcoming deep sea fishing tournament.

"It could change some plans as to where some people plan to fish," he said.

Tuesday's blowout occurred near an unmanned offshore gas platform that was not currently producing natural gas, said Eileen Angelico, spokeswoman for the bureau. The workers were aboard a portable drilling rig known as a jackup rig, operated by Hercules Offshore. Hercules said in a news release that it was operating the rig for Walter Oil & Gas Corp.

Walter Oil & Gas reported to the BSEE that the rig was completing a "sidetrack well" — a means of re-entering the original well bore, Angelico said.

The purpose of the sidetrack well in this instance was not immediately clear. Industry websites say sidetrack wells are sometimes drilled to remedy a problem with the existing well bore.

"It's a way to overcome an engineering problem with the original well," Ken Medlock, an energy expert at Rice University's Baker Institute said. "They're not drilled all the time, but it's not new."

A woman who answered the phone at Walter Oil & Gas in Houston said company officials would provide information later.

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Associated Press reporter Ramit Plushnick-Masti in Houston contributed to this story.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.