The Untenable Risks of Deep-water Drilling: Shell Reports 13,000-Gallon Spill in Gulf of Mexico


Yes, it’s happened again. In another costly example of the untenable risks tied to deep-water drilling, Shell is reporting a 13,000-gallon spill less than 30 miles from where the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank to the seafloor last year triggering the worst oil spill in our nation’s history. From a Dec. 19 Reuters report:

The U.S. Coast Guard was investigating a 13,000-gallon spill from an oil rig leased to Shell, operating about 26 miles southeast of last year’s BP Plc Macondo oil well disaster, a Coast Guard spokesman said on Monday.

The spill of either drilling fluid or oil mixed with drilling fluid was reported Sunday by Transocean Ltd’s Deepwater Nautilus rig, which was drilling a well at Shell’s Appomattox discovery.

“Shell can confirm it has a loss of 319 barrels of drilling fluid,” Shell spokeswoman Kelly op de Weegh said by email.

The leak was from a booster line, which provides additional drilling fluid and is separate from the well, she said.

An interesting sidebar to this story is that the rig in question, the Deepwater Nautilus (see photo below), is actually the sister rig to the Deepwater Horizon. Both were built in the same shipyard (just a year apart) in South Korea by Hyandai Heavy Industries for Transocean. Both rigs have the same safety specifications with all the same features, using the same technology.

According to U.S. Coast Guard spokesman Steve Lehmann, an “overflight from New Orleans spotted a very light sheen in the vicinity” of the Deepwater Nautilus. He did not estimate how large the area of sheen was.

Although there’s still some confusion over exactly what substance was spilled, there is no doubt that this is more bad news for a Gulf ecosystem that is still reeling from last year’s 200-million-gallon spill. More from Reuters:

The initial report filed with the U.S. National Response Center described the leak as a discharge of base oil mixed with synthetic-based (drilling) mud with an oil content of 180 barrels.

“Everything’s pretty up in the air as to what the actual substance is and what the cause of it is, but that’s what we’re going off of right now,” said Coast Guard spokesman Lehmann, referring to the report.

“The ‘oil’ referenced in the report is referring to the synthetic fluid,” op de Weegh, the Shell spokeswoman, said. “The remaining amount in that discharge is water-based.”

The only piece of good news here is that unlike last year’s disaster, the Shell leak was isolated and stopped relatively quickly. The well has been “temporarily” abandoned and repairs are being made. No details were provided on the spill response, which is always a concern when dealing with incidents taking place dozens of miles from shore.

Obviously, this spill is tiny in comparison to last year’s disaster, but it serves as a powerful and costly reminder that deep-water drilling in the Gulf of Mexico poses untenable risks. We can only wonder if President Obama is second-guessing his recent decision to open 20 million acres to new offshore drilling in the Gulf. If he’s not, he should be. Consider this from my Sept. 14 post:

…our federal government is moving forward with its first sale of offshore drilling leases since last year’s catastrophic spill. President Obama is opening an additional 20 million acres – an area the size of Maine – in the western quadrant of the Gulf to oil and gas exploration and drilling. The lease auction includes parcels as far from shore as 250 miles and as close as nine, a frightening prospect indeed when considering the feasibility of an effective spill response.

What I find so troubling about Obama’s move is that we are opening vast new areas of the Gulf to oil spills when it’s abundantly clear that we can’t adequately protect the areas that are already being explored and drilled. Sections of the Gulf that are currently open are dotted with leaking platforms. Untold amounts of oil bubble to the surface from an estimated 27,000 abandoned wells, which are not routinely inspected after being plugged and are not monitored for leaks.

How many deep-water spills will it take before our government moves aggressively to address the risks we continue to face in the Gulf of Mexico?

We will bring you details on this new spill as they emerge.

Read the entire Reuters report here:

Read my Sept. 14 post on the opening of 20 million acres to new offshore drilling in the Gulf:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

Add comment

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This