For Immediate Release: Friday, April 2, 2021
Contact: Rick Steiner (907) 360-4503; Kirsten Stade firstname.lastname@example.org
Another Gulf Deepwater Disaster Narrowly Averted
Hurricane-Induced Drilling Emergency This Fall Only Now Coming to Light
Washington, DC — Amidst a hurricane one week before the November 2020 election, a deep-water oil drilling operation in the Gulf of Mexico barely escaped catastrophe, according to documents posted today by to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The federal safety regulator did not publicly acknowledge the dangerous events for nearly five months and then only as rig employees filed civil lawsuits.
In late October 2020, as Hurricane Zeta approached the Deepwater Asgard with winds in excess of 100 mph and 50-foot seas, the drill ship should have immediately disconnected and secured the well. Rather than follow this standard safety procedure, the Deepwater Asgard remained latched to the wellhead and drifted to the edge of its “Red Watch Circle” – the maximum allowable angle of deviation – placing the entire drilling operation at risk.
The U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the offshore regulator, confirms that, despite the obvious risk to crew and environment, company officials onshore ordered the Asgard to remain connected to the well and continue operations. Although the crew ultimately severed the riser from the Blowout Preventer on the seabed wellhead, an uncontrolled blowout could easily have occurred exposing the Gulf ecosystem and coastal communities to a repeat of the calamitous 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.
The Deepwater Asgard was actively drilling a deepwater well, the GC 895 #1 well at 5,594 feet water depth in the Green Canyon area on the Gulf of Mexico continental slope. Days earlier, on October 22nd, it experienced a significant kick of hydrocarbon fluids up the well due to a failed cement job, similar to Deepwater Horizon’s Macondo well.
“This event came frighteningly close to another Deepwater Horizon catastrophe,” stated Rick Steiner, an expert in maritime oil operations, retired University of Alaska professor and PEER Board Member. “This does not appear to have been caused by mechanical failure but by a combination of irresponsible corporate decisions and lax governmental oversight – a potentially deadly combination.”
Yet, at the time, just days before the presidential election, BSEE issued no public statements. It is not clear whether BSEE had been in contact with the owners/operator of the Asgard during the approach of Zeta, and monitored steps needed to prevent the risk of a catastrophic blowout. It was only on March 8, 2021, nearly five months later and a day before Asgard crew lawsuits were filed that BSEE issued a bland “Safety Alert: Inadequate Preparations in Advance of Inclement Weather Results in Excessive Rig Damage and Risk to Personnel.”
“Interior Secretary Haaland should order an in-depth inquiry into the Deepwater Asgard incident, the failures leading up to it, and what needs to be done to prevent another such near casualty in the future,” added Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Steiner has already filed a complaint with Interior’s Office of Inspector General. “This incident raises serious questions as to how effective our offshore drilling safety rules are and whether they are adequately enforced.”
Such an investigation may also impact the Biden administration’s January 27 order temporarily pausing oil and gas permitting on federal lands and waters if it recommends that the moratorium should be extended or perhaps made permanent in certain high-risk areas.