Diesel begins to leak from oil rig | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Diesel begins to leak from oil rig

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP) – The world’s biggest floating oil rig sank in the South Atlantic on Tuesday, and the state oil company Petrobras said some of the 300,000 gallons of diesel fuel on board had already started to leak.

A cleanup flotilla of 11 ships with floating barriers and oil-dispersing chemicals surrounded a slick at the spot 75 miles off the coast where the 40-story-tall rig, crippled and listing after an explosion last week, went down in heavy seas.

However, scientists and the government said the environmental impact would not be great, in part because the isolated location of the sunken rig, 75 miles off the coast at a depth of nearly one mile.

Workers who had been trying to save the rig were evacuated to another floating platform after it ”shifted suddenly” before dawn, the company said. Divers left two hours before it went under.

At about 10:30 a.m., the rig tipped over and sank in about 10 minutes. Film footage showed the platform disappearing into the water until only the green heliport was visible above the waves. Oil workers looked on, many sobbing for comrades who died in the disaster.

Two workers were killed in the explosion, and eight others are missing, presumed dead inside the sunken rig.

Petrobras Chief Executive Henri Philippe Reichstul said all the oil would eventually leak into the sea. He said there was already a ”fine film” of diesel oil on the surface.

He said containers holding 312,000 gallons of diesel fuel, would collapse under water pressure on the sea bottom at a depth of 4,455 feet. The rig also had 78,000 gallons of crude – most of it in hoses between the wells and the rig. Those hoses were attached when the rig went down and could break, he said.

As barriers were set up around the spill, a second slick was sighted, Petrobras said. It wasn’t known whether the new spill was crude or diesel.

”There is a plan in place to protect the environment,” Reichstul said. ”We are not terribly worried about the environmental question.”

Four ships carried 20 miles of floating oil barriers, ”enough for a spill 10 or 15 times this size,” said Irani Varela, the company’s safety and environment director. Four other ships were prepared to skim oil off the surface and three had chemicals to break down the oil.

Varela said, however, that the barriers would have little effect in high seas, where swells late Tuesday were four feet high.

Scientists said the environmental impact would likely be negligible. The lighter diesel oil tends to evaporate in a few days, while the crude oil would separate and the heavier sediment would sink.

”It would be different if it were in a bay or on the coast, but the open sea is relatively sterile, and fish can just avoid it,” said Paulo Cesar Rosman, professor of coastal and oceanographic engineering at Rio’s Federal University. ”It probably will surface little by little, a slick here and there.”

The government environmental protection agency also said the spill was unlikely to have a major environmental impact on the region.

Still, the spill was part of a larger problem, Rosman said.

”Jacques Cousteau taught us that oil spills are like smoking – the problem is the cumulative effect over time,” he said. ”This is one more.”

Navy divers, engineers and foreign consultants had been working around the clock for days, using nitrogen and compressed air to expel water from flooded compartments. But high winds and rough seas hindered rescue efforts Monday, and the gigantic rig again began to sink slowly off the coast of Macae, 120 miles northeast of Rio.

Built in Italy and later modified in Canada, the rig was the top producer in the oil-rich Campos Basin, which accounts for most of the 1.5 million barrels of oil Brazil produces daily. The platform was pumping about 83,000 barrels of oil and processing 1.3 million cubic meters of gas daily, but the company had plans to raise its production to 180,000 barrels a day.

Finance Director Ronnie Vaz said loss of production from the rig would cost Petrobras $450 million this year. The loss also could raise oil imports and hurt Brazil’s trade balance, which has been stuck in the red for years.

Still, Petrobras already was talking about moving in another rig and said oil output could rise this year despite the accident.

”The offshore industry always claimed it’s a technical wonder, that they can substitute a rig in a matter of months,” said George Hawrylyshyn, editor of the local trade magazine Brazil Energy. ”This will be a test for them.”

Petrobras might find it harder to overcome rising criticism that it has sacrificed safety for profits. In recent years the company has slashed its work force and farmed out jobs to private companies, which some union officials say are less qualified.

Accidents at oil rigs in the Campos Basin have become routine, said Fernando Carvalho, a director of the Oil Workers’ Federation.

Petrobras shares dipped 7 percent on local stock markets Tuesday, and rumors flew that Reichstul’s job was on the line. But stock analysts have maintained their recommendation for Petrobras, which earned a record $5 billion in net profit and has excellent long-term prospects.

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