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Rig Fire in Gulf: Natural Gas Burning; Not Nearly as Bad as Oil Spill

Image: Rig Fire in Gulf: Natural Gas Burning; Not Nearly as Bad as Oil Spill

By Michael Mullins   |   Thursday, 25 Jul 2013 11:57 AM

A drilling rig caught fire in the Gulf of Mexico on Tuesday after a natural gas well ruptured in the shallow waters off Louisiana's coast.

Beams supporting the Hercules Offshore jackup rig collapsed as a result of the fire according to an announcement made by the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) on Wednesday.

Forty-four workers have since been evacuated from the rig.

No injuries were reported, according to the Associated Press.

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As of Wednesday morning, there were no indications that the rig is releasing oil or other hydrocarbons into the water, the BSEE reports, having seen no sheens near the well during multiple flyovers.

The absence of sheens indicates that the gas is burning off.

From the offset, officials stressed that the blowout would not be as serious as the devastating 2010 BP oil spill, which left 11 workers dead and millions of gallons of oil released into the Gulf of Mexico, the AP notes.

"Gas being discharged now would not necessarily affect the water system of the Gulf proper," said Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland's Center for Environmental Science and a member of the federal panel that investigated the BP oil spill.

In general, natural gas poses significantly less of a threat than crude oil, according to scientists contacted by the AP after Tuesday's drilling rig fire.

In his address, Boesch added that the natural gas being released will mostly vent directly into the atmosphere, considering the shallow depth at which the rig was drilling in addition to the burning fire.

The exploration and production company Walter Oil & Gas Corp., which owns an unmanned offshore natural gas platform near the site of Tuesday's explosion, informed the BSEE that the rig was completing a "sidetrack well" at the time of the explosion, the AP reports.

Sidetrack wells are built to re-enter or remedy an existing well.

"It's a way to overcome an engineering problem with the original well," Ken Medlock, an energy expert at Rice University's Baker Institute told the AP. "They're not drilled all the time, but it's not new."

It is unclear why the sidetrack well was being drilled.

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