CARACAS (Reuters) - A Venezuelan natural gas exploration rig sank in the Caribbean sea early on Thursday, but all 95 workers were evacuated safely and there was no leakage, the government said.
The accident came less than a month after a rig owned by BP exploded and sank in the Gulf of Mexico, triggering one of the world’s worst-ever oil spills.
Venezuela’s Energy Minister Rafael Ramirez said no gas was escaping from the Aban Pearl rig site after the platform disappeared beneath the waves near the northeast coast of the OPEC nation, close to the Trinidad and Tobago islands.
“At 2:20 a.m. (0650 GMT) the rig sunk completely. I flew over it this morning and there is nothing to see,” Ramirez told Reuters.
The government had been proud of the Aban Pearl, which was the first offshore gas rig operated by state oil company PDVSA. State television frequently portrayed the platform as evidence of Venezuela’s engineering prowess.
PDVSA said the Dragon 6 oil field where the rig was working had been successfully sealed after the accident.
Critics of President Hugo Chavez say he weakened state-oil company PDVSA by firing thousands of managers and technicians several years ago. The company is the main financier of his socialist revolution and has suffered cash flow problems on lower oil prices.
Venezuela, one of the world’s leading oil exporters, has endured a series of fires and maintenance problems at its network of refineries in recent years, although the nationalization of foreign-owned projects and higher taxes have bolstered PDVSA’s coffers.
Chavez broke news of the accident at the rig — owned India’s Aban Offshore in alliance with Singapore-based company Petromarine Energy Services Ltd — from his Twitter account, @chavezcandanga.
He said all the workers had been rescued at the exploration site, which is run by PDVSA. “They were evacuated and now two Navy patrols are moving to the area,” the president tweeted at 3:11 a.m. local time (3:41 a.m. ET).
Venezuela sits on some of the world’s largest offshore natural gas reserves, but fears of rule changes and pricing issues mean PDVSA has struggled to attract extraction investment from foreign companies with the right experience. It is not yet producing offshore gas.
Ramirez said the football field-sized rig, which was built in 1977, keeled over in the night before finally sinking at about 2 a.m. The region is known for strong waves, a state television reporter said.
The minister said the accident appeared to have been caused by a sudden surge of water entering one of the submarine rafts that the platform’s legs float on, and a submersible robot was being used to investigate further.
“There are several hypothesis about the cause but nothing has been proved yet. We are going to send underwater robots because divers cannot enter there,” Ramirez said.
He said safety valves and other security mechanisms meant the well was sealed and there was no risk of a gas leak. The rig owner would likely try to refloat the Aban Pearl, and two more exploration rigs are traveling to Venezuela from India, he said. Aban Offshore’s shares fell by 1.51 percent to 1017.35 rupees on Thursday.
The semisubmersible rig was drilling some of the 16 gas wells in the Mariscal Sucre offshore natural gas project, and just last week Ramirez visited the platform to celebrate the end of early tests at Dragon 6.
PDVSA and Spain’s Repsol announced last year that they had found a vast offshore gas field in Venezuelan waters.
In April, Venezuela gave Chevron the go-ahead to extract gas from a 7 trillion cubic feet project off the Orinoco Delta, but Chevron says it will not extract gas from there in the next few years at least.
Last year, PDVSA invited a group of companies to take part in Mariscal Sucre — but failed to attract any bids and the auction was closed. PDVSA is hoping for a loan to develop the stalled, 14 trillion cubic feet project.
Ramirez said the development plan for the project would not be affected by the accident and he expected the first gas production in 2012.
Editing by Daniel Wallis and Lisa Shumaker