Natural gas surrounding a drilling rig Tuesday before it exploded.
Natural gas billowing around a drilling rig Tuesday before it exploded.
On Wings of Care

An offshore natural-gas platform burned through the night off the coast of Louisiana following a blowout and explosion on Tuesday.

A drilling company was completing a sidetrack well 115 miles south of New Orleans on Tuesday morning, which likely means it was boring a new hole into an existing well, when gas began spewing uncontrollably from the seafloor. The rig’s crew of 44 workers was evacuated as natural gas formed a sheen in the waters around it and billowed dangerously into the air.

Hours later, while everybody was at a safe distance, the gas ignited, triggering a conflagration that still had not been extinguished as of this writing.

From the AP:

No injuries were reported as a result of the fire, Eileen Angelico, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, told The Associated Press.

She said it wasn’t known what caused the gas to ignite. It also wasn’t clear early Wednesday how and when crews would attempt to extinguish the blaze. BSEE said earlier Tuesday that a firefighting vessel with water and foam capabilities had been dispatched to the scene.

Wild Well Control Inc. was hired to try to bring the well under control. Angelico said Wild Well personnel approached the well earlier Tuesday night, before the fire, but they determined it was unsafe to get closer when they were about 200 feet (60 meters) away from it.

What was the crew up to when it lost control of the well? We don’t know yet:

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.”

If only blowouts and explosions at Gulf drilling rigs were isolated incidents. But a blowout is how the Deepwater Horizon disaster got started. And earlier this month, we showed you a photograph taken by nonprofit On Wings of Care of a slick caused by an out-of-control natural gas well.

With the number of deep-sea rigs tapping the Gulf of Mexico for oil expected to nearly double in the next few years, the chances of more such disasters could yet grow.