A natural gas well exploding off the coast of Louisiana, the USA, is deemed as posing less environmental risk than previous offshore accidents.
The Hercules 265 drilling rig located in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico has partially collapsed on 23 July after catching fire because of a ruptured natural gas well.
However, scientists believe that as the newest disaster involving fossil fuels extraction contains mostly natural gas, it should be far less dangerous than other similar disasters involving oil.
"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 chairman of Louisiana State University's petroleum engineering department, explaining that natural gas disperses relatively easily.
Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland's Centre for Environmental Science, confirmed this presumption, saying that natural gas, being mostly methane, dissolves far more easily than crude oil.
Federal inspectors examined the area yesterday, flying over the damaged rig, and didn’t find any indications of oil or other hydrocarbons being released into the water. Such leaks would have been clearly visible from the aerial perspective as specific sheen on the ocean’s surface.
According to Samantha Joye, a University of Georgia marine scientist, the pollution and health dangers posed by a gas well are quite different to 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.
After the late Tuesday night explosion, 44 workers had to be evacuated. However, no injuries have been reported.
The affected drilling rig is located next to a natural gas platform that was not producing any gas at the time of the explosion as the operator was completing a side-track well, probably to overcome obstructions of the original bore.
Hercules Offshore, the operator of the damaged rig, said stopping the leak of the gas might require drilling a relief well to divert the flow of the gas. Such a solution might take weeks to complete.
The Coast Guard maintained traffic restrictions within 500 metres of the site and the Federal Aviation Administration restricted aircraft up to 610 metres over the area.
While it is not clear if the well contained any crude oil, officials and scientists agree that the latest mishap should not be nearly as damaging as the BP oil spill that famously sent crude oil oozing ashore in 2010.