In the distance, an oil rig in the Caspian Sea. (Photo: Loom Studio / Flickr)
Just 18 months before the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, British Petroleum (BP) evacuated 211 platform workers from a BP platform in the Caspian Sea after an undersea well blowout caused a potentially explosive gas leak, according to US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks.
Wikileaks released cables detailing the 2008 BP platform blowout off the coast of Azerbaijan just hours after the US Department of Justice announced a civil lawsuit against BP for contaminating the Gulf of Mexico with millions of gallons of oil.
The leaked cables show that BP did not share much information on the Caspian Sea well blowout with the public or the company’s regional business partners, and that the blowout was probably the result of a "bad cement job."
Reuters and a few oil industry outlets published limited coverage of the near disaster at the time, and the reports mostly focused on the economic impacts of shutting down additional rigs in the oil field. A BP spokesperson called the blowout a "gas leak" and production was halted as a "safety measure."
The cables released by Wikileaks, however, paint a much more dramatic picture.
In a meeting with US diplomats a few weeks after the blowout, a top BP official said the "red button" had been pushed after a gas leak was detected, initiating the biggest evacuation in the company's history.
A gas injection well had blown out, and "given the explosive potential," BP was "quite fortunate" to have evacuated everyone without igniting the rig, according to the cable.
Mud and water from the seafloor was found on the platform of the rig. Gas stopped bubbling to the surface of the sea within two days.
An earlier cable revealed that BP was "exceptionally circumspect" about sharing information on the blowout with the public and its regional business partners.
The cable detailed early theories on what caused the blowout. Seismic activity or a geological formation could have allowed gas to escape.
A later cable stated that BP officials closed a few suspect wells because the blowout was believed to be the result of a "bad cement job."
This eerie diagnosis is similar to that of the Deepwater Horizon blowout, which resulted from risky cost-cutting measures that compromised the well's blowout preventers.
The leaked cables tell a story that BP didn't tell the public or other players operating in the same oil field. It was, of course, just another blowout - one of 573 blowouts and well releases that have occurred in waters all over the world, according to the Offshore Blowout Database maintained by SINTEF, a Norwegian research organization.
The Norwegian research firm SINTEF operates the database on offshore well releases and blowouts, but the database is confidential and only available to members of the oil industry.