Feb 16, 2012
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — A blowout at an exploratory well near the coast of the Beaufort Sea underscores the threat to the pristine Arctic Ocean environment if offshore drilling is allowed by the Obama administration, environmental groups said Thursday.
No crude oil spilled onto the tundra and no workers were injured in the incident Wednesday, but an estimated 42,000 gallons of drilling mud was spit out of the well owned by Repsol E&P USA Inc. The blowout on the Colville River Delta, 18 miles northeast of the village of Nuiqsut, also expelled natural gas that could have ignited.
"What it shows is that there can be blowouts with exploratory wells hitting pockets of gas," said Pamela Miller of the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks.
Lois Epstein of The Wilderness Society in Anchorage said the well was drilled by an experienced company whose plans were reviewed by the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
"What this shows, and this is not the first time, is that drilling is a dirty and complicated business and that accidents happen, even to the best of companies, even with the best of oversight," she said. "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."
Water and small amounts of gas continued to flow from the well Thursday, said Cathy Foerster, one of three members of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The commission oversees drilling for worker safety, environmental protection and petroleum conservation.
Workers must wait for gas to completely clear before starting machinery that can be used to regain control of the well, she said.
The cause of the incident has not been determined, Foerster said, but the commission will investigate.
The incident began when Repsol's contractor, Nabors Drilling, penetrated a shallow gas pocket at 2,535 feet. The release of pressure resulted in a gas kick that sent drilling mud spewing out of the hole.
Drilling mud, also called drilling fluid, is used to lubricate the drill shaft, cool the hole and carry cut rock to the surface. It's also used to apply downward pressure on gas or liquids that could flow upward.
"The drilling fluid that they had in the hole should have been adequate for what they were expecting to encounter," Foerster said. "We need to understand why it wasn't, and that will be part of our investigation."
Workers tried killing the well by pumping more fluid down the borehole. That mud also was blown out.