Blowout in the Beaufort: Exploratory Well Still Spilling
by C. L. Cook
The operators of an exploratory well in Northern Alaska reported a blowout this week at their site near the Beaufort Sea coast. Repsol E&P USA Inc. say an estimated 42,000 gallons of drilling mud was ejected from their operation on the Colville River Delta, near the village of Nuigsut Wednesday (Feb. 15, 2012).
A company spokesperson from the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission said the blowout, not yet sealed Thursday, occurred when the rig hit gas pockets. Workers can't approach the rig until leaking gas levels drop.
Dan Joling, reporting for the Associated Press, quotes Pamela Miller of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks saying;
"What it shows is that there can be blowouts with exploratory wells hitting pockets of gas."
Joling too cites Lois Epstein of The Wilderness Society in Anchorage, who says the exploratory well plans were reviewed and approved by the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Epstein says;
"What that tells me as someone who is working to find the right balance between drilling and protection is that you've got to recognize that certain areas, if you're going to allow drilling, there are going to be problems, and therefore the most sensitive areas need to be protected from drilling."
Cathy Foerster, speaking for the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said Repsol contract driller, Nabors Drilling hit the gas pocket at roughly 2,500 feet, the pressurized "gas kick" then hurling thousands of gallons of drilling mud back to the surface, along with water and gas.
"The drilling fluid that they had in the hole should have been adequate for what they were expecting to encounter." Adding; "We need to understand why it wasn't, and that will be part of our investigation."
Oil and gas exploration in and around the Beaufort is controversial, especially so in wake of the Deep Water Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Critics say, a similar spill in the Beaufort, where weather conditions and a much narrower time window available to address a long-running spill pose too great a threat to the fragile ecosystems of the Arctic.
Those critics likely won't be reassured by Foerster's assertion everything was done by the book in this case, yet a blowout happened anyway. (Foerster says she does not typify this incident as a "blowout," because there are "no burning rigs, loss of life or oil spread over the tundra" [yet]. She believes, she says, "a better description is a loss of well control." Adding; "That term is very accurate and it doesn't have any of the emotional terror attached to it that 'blowout' does.")
"We don't like it when this happens, but it's one of the known risks." Adding; "It's something we know might happen and we've engineered, not a solution to it, but a prevention of disaster. The diverter is what we have engineered to handle this kind of incident should it happen, and it does, so everything happened the way it was supposed to happen."
The Beaufort Sea is seen as the next great reserve of oil and gas, with companies and countries around the Arctic all vying for exploration and exploitation rights.
Repsol is a subsidiary to Spain's Repsol-YPF, which, next to Royal Dutch Shell, holds the greatest number of leases in the Chukchi Sea of Alaska's northwest coast. Shell hopes to begin large scale exploratory drilling in the Chukchi this summer.