NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A blown-out natural gas well blazing off Louisiana's coast poses fewer environmental dangers than past offshore accidents because it appears to primarily involve gas that disperses relatively easily, scientists said Wednesday.
"A gas well's not going to result in any kind of major pollution — perhaps not even significant pollution if it's burning," said Ted Bourgoyne, the former chair of Louisiana State University's petroleum engineering department. He now runs the consultancy Bourgoyne Enterprises Inc.
Federal inspectors said a light sheen was spotted around the rig on Wednesday evening, though authorities said it quickly dissipated and the fire aboard the rig continued to be fed by natural gas. A sheen was spotted shortly after the blowout began on Tuesday but it, too, quickly dissipated.
Gas wells often also have oil or other hydrocarbons as well as natural gas. Officials and scientists agree the latest mishap shouldn't be nearly as damaging as the BP oil spill that famously sent crude oil oozing ashore in 2010.
The fire broke out late Tuesday hours after the blowout, authorities said. Forty-four workers were evacuated from a drilling rig at the site, and no injuries were reported.
By Wednesday evening, the derrick and drill floor structure had collapsed. A fireboat was pumping water on the rig in an effort to keep as much of it as cool as possible.
University of Georgia marine scientist Samantha "Mandy" Joye also said the pollution and health dangers posed by a gas well are quite different than those posed at the well where the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up in 2010, killing 11 people and spewing millions of gallons of oil for weeks.
"The biggest danger from gas is that it is extremely flammable. At high concentration, gas exposure can cause health issues (vomiting, headaches, and worse) but such high levels are not likely to be reached in warm, shallow waters," Joye said in an email response to questions.
That's not to say there were no dangers. The Coast Guard maintained traffic restrictions within 500 meters of the site and the Federal Aviation Administration restricted aircraft up to 2,000 feet over the area.
Tuesday's blowout occurred at a drilling rig adjacent to a natural gas platform that wasn't producing gas at the time about 55 miles south of the coast. The rig was completing a "sidetrack well," which drills into the same well hole under the platform. Industry experts say such wells are used to remedy an obstruction or other problem with the original bore, or to access a different part of the gas reserve.