Explosion and Fire at Deepwater Drilling Rig in the Gulf of Mexico

Smoke plume from burning drill rig; note oil slick at lower right. Image courtesy MSNBC; see their slideshow.


Firefighters working to control blaze at the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Photograph courtesy of Rigzone. See more hi-res Coast Guard photos in SkyTruth gallery.

We’ve just begun seeing news reports of an explosion and fire last night that has forced the evacuation of 126 workers from an oil rig that was drilling an exploration well 41 miles off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico. The Deepwater Horizon is a massive semisubmersible drill rig built in 2001. It’s owned and operated by Transocean Ltd, the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, with a global fleet of more than 140 rigs. Transocean operates 14 rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

11 workers are missing and 7 have been injured. The rig is still on fire (video of fire and evacuation of crew), and is listing.

The Deepwater Horizon semisubmersible offshore drilling rig.

The rig was built for drilling ultradeep wells in water far offshore, where most of the action is in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s under contract to BP and was drilling an exploration well in the Macondo prospect, in the Mississippi Canyon area of the north-central Gulf. The water depth there is almost 5,000 feet.

SkyTruth’s testimony to Congress last fall on the risks of offshore drilling was brushed off by some politicians. Maybe it’s worth looking at again.

UPDATE 4/21/2010 – Despite some reports to the contrary, Coast Guard says 12 workers are still missing. 15 were injured, 7 of them critically.

UPDATE 4/21/2010 – NOAA reports that nearly 1.2 million gallons of fuel oil are on the rig (#2 fuel oil or diesel), and that the Coast Guard has requested NOAA’s help in modeling oil spill trajectories in the event of a spill. I’m guessing that much of this oil is burning. See the official NOAA Incident Report. Thanks to blogger Seth Platt for the heads up.

UPDATE 4/21/2010, 7:10 pm – NBC Nightly News just reported that the rig is leaking oil into the water; and that the Coast Guard is trying to get an ROV or submersible that can shut off an underwater valve to cut the flow of fuel to the fire. This sounds like a “loss of well control,” or blowout, like the one that lead to disaster off Australia last year. Let’s hope they can get that valve closed. No word yet on the missing workers.

UPDATE 4/22/2010, 9:30 am – Coast Guard still searching for 11 missing rig workers; rig is still on fire. SkyTruth has started an image gallery for this incident that includes hi-res Coast Guard photos of the burning rig.

UPDATE 4/22/2010, 2:00 pm – CNN is reporting that the rig has sunk. The fire is continuing. Coast Guard is estimating that oil is spilling at a rate of 336,000 gallons (8,000 barrels) per day.

UPDATE 4/22/2010, 5:30 pm – SkyTruth analysis of two NASA satellite images taken hours apart yesterday suggests the Deepwater Horizon rig may have been drifting. Images show the rig moved almost 2-1/2 miles to the east in about 2 hours. We have no confirmation that the rig was drifting, and this would suggest a pretty fast clip. But the shorelines in the two images match up almost perfectly, so we have no exlanation yet for this apparent movement.

UPDATE 4/23/2010, 10 am – 11 rig workers still missing and Coast Guard reports that oil is no longer leaking from the damaged well on the seafloor. Not yet clear if this is because their attempt to shut off the well using an ROV has succeeded. Oil spill cleanup operations are proceeding with deployment of containment booms and skimmer vessels.

Atlantic Drilling – New Jersey Oil Spillustration

A lot of folks were surprised by the Obama administration’s recently announced plan to expand oil and gas drilling in US waters to much of the Atlantic coast and into the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska. Alaska’s Bristol Bay, home to a wild-salmon fishing industry that rakes in some $300-400 million every year, will be put off-limits to drilling until 2017.

Under this plan, drilling will be allowed off the Eastern Seaboard from Florida to Delaware:

Map source: New York Times

SkyTruth thought it would be interesting to illustrate what could happen if a drill rig off Delaware had a blowout and spill comparable to what we saw unfold off Australia last year. So we took the cumulative oil slick “footprint” – all of the oil slicks we observed on NASA satellite images throughout the ten-week duration of the Australia spill – and transposed it onto the Atlantic coast, assuming the source of the spill was a well 60 miles off the Delaware shore. The entire coast of New Jersey, from Cape May to Sandy Hook, would be impacted:

Hypothetical illustration showing 2009 Australia oil spill superimposed on Atlantic coast.

This image was used by New Jersey Senator Lautenberg in a meeting yesterday with Senators Kerry and Lieberman, who support more offshore drilling if it helps gain the votes they need to pass a climate bill. Lautenberg, and his colleague Senator Menendez, aren’t big fans of that plan.

We want to stress that our illustration is hypothetical. It’s not based on a numerical model of how oil would likely move and disperse if a well off Delaware really did have a major problem; that’s a function of wind, tide, current, the properties of the oil, the rate and quantity of spillage, and of course the effectiveness of our efforts to contain the oil in such an incident. But this illustration is based on actual observations of a real event, the Montara / West Atlas blowout and spill that we tracked in the Timor Sea off Australia last year.

Offshore Oil Is Spilled in Delta National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana

We just learned about an oil spill yesterday in the Delta National Wildlife Refuge near Venice, Louisiana. The US Coast Guard is responding to the estimated 18,000-gallon spill of crude oil from a pipeline jointly operated by Chevron and BP. The cause of the spill is under investigation, but early reports suggest that workers on an Exxon barge may have accidentally damaged the pipeline.

This is yet another reminder of the risks that offshore drilling poses to onshore and coastal habitats and communities: the pipeline carries oil from an offshore platform out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class James Peterson with Sector New Orleans, takes a sample from an oil spill that occured approximately 10 miles southeast of Venice, La., in the Delta National Wildlife Refuge, April 6, 2010. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Jesse Kavanaugh.

The Coast Guard has posted high-resolution photos showing the impacts of this spill, which ranks as a “medium” spill by Coast Guard definition (an inland spill of 1,000 to 10,000 gallons); the kind of spill we usually don’t hear about, unless it happens in an interesting location like an urban area, a popular beach, or a place that we all assume is protected, like a wildlife refuge. Looking at these pics it’s difficult to imagine the impact of a multi-million-gallon spill like the Montara/West Atlas blowout and spill off Australia’s coast last year.