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Natural gas rig blows out, is on fire off Louisiana coast

<i>This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.</i>

HOUSTON -- U.S. Coast Guard and firefighting vessels were standing by as officials prepared to stem a natural gas leak and fire that erupted at a well off the Louisiana coast overnight and continued to burn Wednesday following a blowout, authorities said.

No one was injured and all 44 workers aboard the rig were evacuated before the fire started at 10:45 p.m. Tuesday, officials said.

The rig was still on fire Wednesday and the Coast Guard was restricting vessel traffic within 500 meters of the rig, while also recommending that others stay five miles away, said Lt. j.g. Tanner Stiehl. They were also enforcing Federal Aviation Administration temporary restrictions on air travel up to 2,000 feet above the area, he said.

Federal safety authorities said in a statement Wednesday morning that “as the rig fire continues, the beams supporting the derrick and rig floor have folded and have collapsed over the rig structure.”

Local officials said they did not fear the natural gas leak would become as damaging as the 2010 BP oil spill, which devastated the area, known as the Lower Parishes. That spill began when an oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded offshore, killing 11 workers and spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

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Michel Claudet, Terrebonne Parish president since 2008, noted that in this case, all the workers were quickly evacuated using “life capsules” kept on the rig, and were then picked up by a supply boat and brought ashore at Port Fourchon unharmed.

He said there was no sign of the leak on shore.

“This does not appear to be a BP spill, anything close to that,” Claudet said.

Claudet said he has been in touch with state emergency managers and “it looks to me completely under control.”

The portable 250-foot drilling rig on fire is known as a “jack-up” and is positioned about 55 miles offshore. It is owned by Hercules Offshore Inc., a contractor for Houston-based exploration and production company Walter Oil & Gas Corp.

The rig had been installed next to an unmanned platform where workers were preparing a well when the trouble started.

“They were in the process of doing a completion on a preexisting well bore” that had been drilled in 2006 into an area that “was not productive” and inactive, according to Walter spokesman David Blackmon.

“Later geology work showed there was another zone, a more shallow zone that would be more productive,” Blackmon said.

“They didn’t have to do any actual drilling,” he said.

The workers “experienced a loss of control” of Well A-3 at 8:45 a.m. Tuesday, according to a statement from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Soon after, inspectors reported a cloud of natural gas above the rig and a light sheen on the water one-half mile by 50 feet in area, according to the statement.

Blackmon said it was unclear what caused the loss of well control. He said the workers have been interviewed by the company and regulators. Walter officials were working with contractors to control the leak, including Wild Well Control Inc., and considering whether to drill a relief bore, he said. Wild Well officials referred questions to Walter.

“They’re just exploring what the options are to bring the thing under control,” Blackmon told The Times, adding that they expect to decide what to do on Wednesday.

He said what’s leaking is “dry natural gas” and that “there’s virtually no liquid associated with it.”

“What’s coming out of this hole is lighter than water--it evaporates off the surface very quickly,” Blackmon said, adding, “There’s no threat to anyone on shore.”

He said the pocket of gas that’s leaking is “pretty small” and if left unchecked the leak would probably last days, making it “not even in any way comparable” to the BP spill.

Hercules officials released a statement noting that they were working with Walter to determine what caused the incident, that they would assess potential enviornmental impacts and that “our immediate focus is on stopping the flow of natural gas from the well.”

“We have a full-scale response addressing the situation. We continue to work closely not only with first responders but also BSEE and USCG officials who have been very positive about our preparedness and emergency procedures,” Jim Noe, a senior executive with Hercules, said in a statement to The Times.

“Right now, we are singularly focused on working with Walter, their wild well experts, and the regulators with coming up with an action plan on regaining control of the well. Once things settle, we will turn to looking at potential causes,” Noe said.

Officials from the BSEE and the Coast Guard flew over the area Wednesday morning, and BSEE released a statement noting “there is no observed sheen on the water surface.”

Two firefighting ships were in the area and relocated to a safe distance from the fire, the statement said. A third vessel equipped with firefighting capability and improved monitoring was expected to arrive Wednesday.

“Walter Oil & Gas has begun preparations to move a jack-up rig on location to potentially drill a relief well,” the statement said, noting the federal agency “continues to review and approve all operational plans and procedures.”

The federal agency was still investigating what caused the loss of well control, the statement said, and officials have set up a local command center in Terrebonne Parish with the Coast Guard.

In addition to the firefighting boats, Coast Guard officials said they had one boat on scene and another on the way early Wednesday.

[For the Record, 1:19 p.m. PDT July 24: A previous version of this post incorrectly said the Coast Guard was restricting vessel traffic within 500 yards of the burning rig. Traffic was being restricted within 500 meters.]

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