Recent Gulf of Mexico well control incidents have US regulators calling for better safety in shallow water. By Audrey Leon
Representatives from the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), US Bureau of Lands and Minerals Management, and oil and gas industry representatives gathered in Houston last month to discuss the need for improved offshore safety operations. The meeting follows three recent well control incidents since February that occurred in shallow water since February. An earlier event, in November 2012, led to the death of three workers during maintenance operations.
Acting Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management Tommy Beaudreau, who was in attendance at the meeting, mentioned that there are a few things companies can do to increase safety offshore.
“There are practices relating to the drilling operations, well control and contingency plans that companies must share with each other to protect workers and the environment.”
BSEE Director James A. Watson urged the industry to avoid complacency with regards to safety in shallow water environments.
“While many consider shallow water operations to be less technically challenging than those occurring in deep water, they are not without risk,” Watson said. “Offshore workers need to be empowered to take actions to save lives when they see a leading indicator that something is wrong.”
Newly appointed US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who also attended the meeting, characterized new regulatory reforms put in place by the department as “aggressive” and “comprehensive.”
“These recent incidents underscore the inherent risk in offshore operations and the need for everyone – from the chief executive officer to the roustabout – to make safety his or her number one priority,” Jewell said.
Following the meeting, National Oceans Industries Association (NOIA) President Randall Luthi called this a good start in determining how to minimize the risks of future incidents. “It’s clear, he said, “that when it comes to offshore operations, safety is safety, whether on the shelf or in deepwater.”
Causes for concern
The latest loss of well control incident to ratchet up safety worries occurred at Walter Oil and Gas Corp.’s natural gas well A-3 at South Timbalier Block 220 on July 23, 2013.
Completion work had been underway on a sidetrack well when the blowout happened. All 44 people on board were evacuated. Later that evening, natural gas from the well ignited a fire onboard Hercules Offshore’s Hercules 265 jackup rig. According to a BSEE incident report, the source of ignition is unknown. No injuries were reported.
The Hercules 265 sustained considerable damage with the beams that supported the derrick and rig floor folded and collapsed over the rig structure.
On August 4, drilling began on a relief well using the Rowan EXL-3 jackup rig. Drilling is expected to continue for approximately 35 days.
A kicking feeling
On February 5, 2013, Apache evacuated 15 workers after experiencing a kick from an abnormally pressured gas zone during drilling operations at Main Pass Block 295, 50 miles off the coast of Venice, Louisiana.
The incident occurred while the Ensco 87 rig was operating in 218ft of water. Workers were able to activate the blowout preventer to stop gas from flowing to the surface.
Although no bubbling was seen that would have indicated a seafloor breach, gas had intermittently been detected on the surface at the wellhead indicating slight seepage through surface connections, according to an incident report from BSEE.
A deadly day
On November 16, 2012, an accident at the shallow water West Delta Block 32, located 18 miles southeast of Grand Isle, Louisiana, left three contract workers dead and 11 injured when the oil production platform caught fire.
The platform was not producing at the time, and had been shut-in due to maintenance. Louisiana-based Grand Isle Shipyard had been contracted for maintenance work on the platform owned and operated by Houston-based Black Elk Energy.
Three workers, all from the Philippines, employed by Grand Isles Shipyard were killed. Two died during the incident and were later found near the accident site. A third worker, a welder, passed away due to complications from major burn injuries on November 23.
In November, John Hoffman, CEO of Black Elk Energy, told Houston TV station KTRK that workers had used a cutting torch to cut a line that required cold-cutting. However, Grand Isle Shipyard’s CEO Mark Pregeant disputed that version of events.”Those gentlemen did not cut that piece of pipe with a torch,” Pregeant said in a statement released by the US-Philippine Consulate in November.
BSEE’s investigation into the incident is ongoing. OE