ON THE GULF OF MEXICO — Scientists from several universities are working to learn whether a gas well that blew wild last week off the Louisiana coast has polluted the Gulf of Mexico.
Joseph Montoya, a Georgia Tech biology professor, was leading a research project on a vessel near the site of the 2010 BP oil spill when the gas well, owned by Houston-based Walter Oil & Gas Corp., suffered a blowout on July 23 and later caught fire. All 44 people aboard the Hercules 265 rig working at the site in 154 feet of water were evacuated safely. The rig is owned by Hercules Offshore Inc., also based in Houston.
The well spewed gas and small amounts of oil that produced occasional light sheens on the Gulf surface. Late Wednesday, the well choked itself off. Authorities believe sand and sediments blocked the flow of gas and the fire that damaged the rig burned itself out.
The federal Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said Monday that its Gulf of Mexico Regional Director, Lars Herbst, was organizing a panel investigation to determine the cause of the accident.
"The panel will be led by a BSEE Gulf of Mexico Region engineer and membership includes BSEE investigators and engineers from both the Gulf Region and Headquarters," the agency said in a news release. BSEE will also work with the coast guard to find the cause of the blowout, determine whether any safety violations were involved and make recommendations to prevent future blowouts.
Meanwhile, Montoya and the team of academics hoped to find any hints of environmental damage.
"We organized a rapid-response cruise to get some of our scientists out here," Montoya said Saturday while near the Hercules rig.
A 10-member crew used buckets, hoses and canisters to collect water samples to measure levels of methane gas, radon gas, bacterial abundance and activity, among other things. The Coast Guard wouldn't let their boat closer than 5 miles to the rig.
They also released surface floats that will drift with the current, tracking the likely path of any contamination from the damaged rig. The "drifters" have global positioning devices and transmitters.
As the researchers worked in choppy Gulf waters, federal and private vessels bustled around the Hercules rig, about 55 miles southwest of Grand Isle, La.
Federal officials said natural gas detectors and high-capacity water hoses were being installed on the rig, while another rig was readied to drill a relief well for a permanent plug.
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement said it approved Walter Oil's permit to drill the well, and crews were preparing the Rowan EXL-3 rig for drilling. Once the drill gets into the original pipe, drilling mud and then cement will be pumped in as a permanent seal.
Because the well was natural gas, not oil, experts said the pollution threats were far less than those posed by some previous accidents. BP's Macondo well, which blew wild in April 2010, lost an estimated 200 million gallons of crude oil as well as natural gas. It fouled marshes and beaches across four states before being capped.
"People don't seem to get excited about natural gas the way they do about oil, because you can't see it, you can't smell it, and it doesn't wash up all over your beaches," Montoya said. "But it's a very potent greenhouse gas."
He said it has the potential to feed into the planktonic food web and impact offshore ecosystems.
Scientists were focusing on surface water since methane and hydrocarbons are less dense and rise to the surface.
While the BP blowout happened in deep water — the well was about 5,000 feet below the Gulf surface — the Walter Oil & Gas well provided an opportunity to study hydrocarbon transport in shallower waters, said Nathan Laxague, a University of Miami researcher.
"They may wash ashore in a matter of days or be taken out to sea depending on these shallow water air-sea dynamics," he said.
Saturday's research was performed aboard a roughly 50-foot research vessel that launched out of Cocodrie, La.
The journey took about 18 hours, in part because travel was prolonged by high winds and rain that made for choppy seas. It took several hours to collect all the needed water samples and sediment, then another two hours to release the surface floaters around the rig.
The trip was organized by Samantha Joye, director of science for the Ecological Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf, known as ECOGIG.
"I wanted to get a ship out there ASAP to collect samples for establishing a baseline of biology, chemistry and physics so that any potential future impacts could be quantified," she said.
The research is being funded through the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative launched with roughly $112 million pledged by BP after the 2010 oil spill for the study of the effect of oil and gas on the Gulf's ecosystem.
Associated Press reporter Kevin McGill in New Orleans contributed to this report.