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What Are Oil Rig Blowouts?
Definition, Types, & Control Methods

Oil rig blowouts are a release of built-up pressure from oil drilling efforts. When oil collects underground, it forms an oil field. When people drilling for oil attempt to tap into this concentration of oil, the pressure can build up and cause a blowout, resulting in serious injuries, catastrophic fires, and even death.
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C.L. Mike Schmidt Published by C.L. Mike Schmidt

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How Do Oil Rig Blowouts Occur?

A common cause of oil blowouts is rock formation pressures around an oil reservoir. Oil can take millions of years to develop. This process involves compression and pressurization of water by layers of sediment on top of carbon-based substances (typically some type of life form).

Oil well companies counter the pressure by using mud at the drilling site. If the pressure balance isn’t managed properly, oil, gas, and water can infiltrate the wellbore or even the drill itself. A blowout can then result.

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Types of Oil Rig Blowouts

The 3 types of blowouts that can cause devastating consequences are:

  • Surface blowouts - This is the most common kind of oil well blowout. It can harm the oil rig and the surrounding area. It may even cause a deadly or catastrophic explosion. Relief wells are used to control the pressure and fluid balance.
  • Underground blowouts - These blowouts are less common. Fluid from high-pressure formations flows to low-pressure formations.
  • Underwater blowouts - These blowouts are extremely hard to manage. The Deepwater Horizon well disaster, in 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico is one example.

What is a Blowout Preventer?

A blowout preventer, or BOP, is a large specialized unit weighing up to 400 tons that is used to prevent an oil spill from occurring. It works like a valve to close an oil well, similar to a plumber closing a valve in a pipe.

What's the Difference Between a Kick and a Blowout?

A kick is defined as flow of formation fluids or gas into the wellbore, whereas a blowout is the uncontrolled release of the fluid or gas, gained through the kick. A blowout can take place at the surface or into another formation (underground blowout).

Formation fluids that enter the wellbore can be crude oil or brine, gas entered can be any kind of naturally occurring gas. During a kick, drilling mud is displaced by the fluid or gas entering the borehole.

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Other Control Methods

Most commonly, when a well is lost to a blowout, the drilling package will have collapsed around the well, making proper assessment of the situation difficult. Firefighters arrive as quickly as possible and use machinery to remove the damaged rig and associated debris so they can assess the situation and choose the best method to fight the blowout.

In the early days of fighting oil well fires, the most common technique to smother a blowout was to snuff it with a dynamite blast. Pioneered by Myron Kinley, the intention is to blast fuel and oxygen away from the flame, effectively eliminating the fuel source, similar to snuffing out a candle.

Although the first instance of this method dates back to 1913, dynamite blasting continues to be one of the most frequently employed methods. Another common method employed by oil well firefighters involves drilling a "relief" well or wells into and intersecting the blowing well. This intersection gives the kill fluid a conduit to the surface, enabling what is called a "subsurface kill."

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How to Prevent Oil Rig Blowouts

There are a number of steps that a driller can take to keep oil and gas secure in a deep Seawell. The first step is to use drilling fluid to create hydrostatic pressure in the wellbore to prevent oil and gas from surging up the well.

After the well is completed, the wellbore is usually filled with a completion fluid designed to have a density sufficient to prevent the escape of oil and gas from the rock formation. Drilling and completion fluids must be designed in such a way that they do not create excessive hydrostatic pressure.

Too much pressure will incur waste because large volumes of the fluids will leak into the rock formations penetrated by the wellbore, where they cannot be retrieved.

The next step of preparation is to pump a cement slurry containing various additives through the casing. Once hardened, the cement seals off the oil- and gas-bearing rock from the wellbore until the oil company is ready to produce the well.

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