The Worst Petroleum Disasters Ever

1. The Kuwaiti Oil Fires

In 1991, coalition forces drove Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army from Kuwait, but the retreating army left devastation in its wake. They sabotaged Kuwait’s oil fields, damaging 750 of the country’s 943 wells, according to U.S. military documents. More than 600 of those wells were set ablaze.

The fires raged from February to November, spewing black soot across the Persian Gulf. More than a billion barrels of oil went up in flames. Military monitoring of the smoke plume showed it to be full of acidic gases, toxic particles and dangerous compounds like sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, all of which are associated with respiratory disease and cancer.

It cost Kuwait $1.5 billion to fight the fires, and the Kuwaiti oil industry spent more than $5 billion trying to repair the damage to its infrastructure, according to the U.S. military. The disaster also changed the Kuwaiti landscape forever. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, oil and soot combined with sand and coated 5 percent of Kuwait in an asphalt-like “tarcrete.” Meanwhile, the oil spilled in the disaster pooled, dotting the country with more than 300 petroleum lakes.

2. The Piper Alpha rig explosion

The deadliest oil rig disaster of all time took place far out in the North Sea on a July evening in 1988. At 10 p.m. local time, when most of the 226-man crew were retiring for the evening, a gas leak on the Piper Alpha platform ignited. In the next hour, things would go from bad to worse. The rig’s alert system failed, as did the PA system and fire pumps. Three more explosions rocked the rig as gas in the Piper Alpha’s pipelines went up in flames. By 1 a.m., the rig would collapse into the sea.

Rescue helicopters couldn’t land on the burning platform. Desperate workers tried to jump to safety or climb down to the sea below; only 59 survived the ordeal, most with multiple injuries. In the end, 167 men lost their lives.

An inquiry into the accident would tighten safety regulations and change the way offshore drilling is done. But echoes of the disaster still linger. A 2002 study published in The British Journal of Psychiatry found that 73 percent of survivors had post-traumatic stress disorder in the months after the accident and 21 percent still had the syndrome 10 years later.

3. The Alexander L. Kielland collapse

The Deepwater Horizon rig collapsed into the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010 after an explosive gas blowout, but it doesn’t always take the firepower of fossil fuels to bring a rig down. In 1980, the semi-submersible Alexander L. Kielland collapsed into the North Sea, killing 123 people. It was the deadliest rig collapse ever.

Semi-submersibles are rigs that aren’t fixed to the seafloor. Instead, they balance on pontoons below the water’s surface. The Alexander L. Kielland was acting as a floating hotel for workers on a nearby rig when one of its supports snapped. The problem was a small fracture that had developed during the installation of some equipment, but once that support went, so did the rest. The Kielland toppled over and bobbed at the surface for 15 minutes before flipping upside down. High winds and waves smashed the few lifeboats that managed to launch, and only 89 people managed to survive the freezing waters.

4. Sidoarjo Mud Volcano, Indonesia

Since May 2006, millions of cubic feet of hot, fine-grained mud has gushed out of the ground in the province of East Java, Indonesia. The culprit is the Sidoarjo mud volcano, which first erupted near an exploratory gas well drilled by Indonesian oil and gas company Lapindo Brantas. Within months of the drilling, entire villages had been covered, displacing more than 25,000 people. By 2008, almost 3 miles (7 km) of East Java was buried beneath 65 feet (20 m) of mud, according to NASA observations.

Exactly what caused the mud volcano is the source of much controversy. Lapindo Brantas blames a 6.3-magnitude earthquake that hit two days before the volcano’s first eruption. But independent researchers blame the drilling itself. The earthquake was too far from the volcano to have caused the eruption, according to a 2008 study published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

More likely, the researchers concluded, a sudden influx of oil and gas into the well sent pressures in the well bore skyrocketing. The well was not reinforced with cement, so the pressure fractured the surrounding rock. Fluid and mud erupted to the surface through the resulting network of cracks.

Thanks to these underground fractures, the volcano can’t be plugged, and some researchers predict that the Sidoarjo mud flow will continue for the next 30 years.

5. Lake Peigneur, La.

On Nov. 20, 1980, a Texaco rig sunk a test well through the bed of Lake Peigneur, a 10-foot (3-meter) deep freshwater lake 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of Lafayette, La.

The well was targeting petroleum trapped by salt formations under the lake; instead, thanks to a miscalculation, Texaco drilled directly into the working Diamond Crystal salt mine. Water began to rush into the mine, dissolving the salt and creating a swirling vortex. The rig disappeared down the whirlpool, as did 11 barges and a tugboat. At one point, the rushing water forced air through the mineshafts of the salt mine so rapidly that it created a 400-foot (120 meter) geyser.

The Delcambre canal, which usually flowed from the lake to the Gulf of Mexico, reversed its direction, creating a 150-foot (45 meter) waterfall of salt water into the lake.

Miraculously, no one died in the disaster, but within two days, Lake Peigneur was forever changed. Water from the Gulf filled the lake, which is now 1,300 feet (396 meters) deep. Much of the shoreline fell into the whirlpool, and the surrounding ecosystem turned from freshwater to saltwater marsh.

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