State Responds to Well Blow Out

The state is responding to a blow-out from an exploratory well on the North Slope. The Spanish company Repsol was in the early phase of drilling a well Wednesday morning when they encountered an unexpected gas “kick.” That means gas started flowing up the well. Cathy Foerster is the engineering commissioner for the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. She says the safety equipment did its job.

“When you’re drilling the surface hole in a well, you can’t use a blow-out preventer, because there is no pipe to attach the blow out preventer to.  So you have to use a diverter, and the diverter doesn’t allow you to shut the well in, it just diverts flow away from the people and the rig. And this diverter did exactly what it was supposed to do,” Foerster said.

The blow out sent 1200 gallons of drilling mud out of the well and onto the drilling platform, according to Repsol. Gas has stopped flowing from the well. Foerster says that indicates it was a relatively small pocket of gas. Repsol is contracting with a company called Wild Well Control, inc. out of Texas that specializes in controlling blow outs. They are expected to arrive on scene by 4 a.m. Thursday. Foerster says it’s not ideal that Repsol lost control of the well, but the potential for significant environmental damage is small.

“And it will have caused some raised blood pressure and some extra expenditure and some delay of time. In the best case scenario it will have startled a few people, made them spend a little extra money and then they go back to work,” Foerster said.

Foerester says it’s been about two decades since a similar accident happened on the North Slope. She says Repsol was required to complete a comprehensive shallow survey of the geology before drilling to look for potential hazards.

“Our technical staff looked at it, analyzed it. I reviewed it and our geologic commissioner looked at it as well so it had quite a few eyes on it and none of us identified shallow hazards. All that shows is that you can’t predict everything,” Foerster said.

Environmental groups say that fact should convince the state to proceed cautiously into new drilling areas.  Lois Epstein is Arctic Program Director for the Wilderness Society. She says the state is lucky the blowout involved gas and not oil and the accident is a reminder that drilling wells is risky.

“This is a very dirty complex business and because that’s the reality, its very important to protect sensitive areas and not have them subject to drilling,” Epstein said.

Epstein says if a large scale version of the Repsol accident happened off shore in Alaska it would be disastrous for marine life. The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission already has a field inspector on scene.

The Department of Environmental Conservation expects to have someone there Thursday morning.

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Annie Feidt is the Editor and Producer of Alaska News Nightly, and is also a frequent contributor to the show. Her reporting has taken her searching for polar bears on the Chukchi Sea ice, out to remote checkpoints on the Iditarod Trail, and up on the Eklutna Glacier with scientists studying its retreat. Her stories have been heard nationally on NPR and Marketplace. Annie’s career in radio journalism began in 1998 at Minnesota Public Radio, where she produced the regional edition of All Things Considered. She moved to Anchorage in 2004 with her husband, intending to stay in the 49thstate just a few years. She has no plans to leave anytime soon. afeidt (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  |  907.550.8443 | About Annie