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Natural-gas rig sinks off Venezuela

May 13, 2010 | 12:24 pm

  Aban Pearl

The Associated Press reports that a natural-gas rig off Venezuela has sunk, but all 95 of its crew have been rescued:

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — An offshore natural-gas platform sank off Venezuela on Thursday, and 95 workers were rescued safely, the government said.

All of the workers on the Aban Pearl platform off eastern Sucre state were safely evacuated, and the sinking poses no threat to the environment, Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez told state television. The navy rescued the workers using a frigate and boats after the gas platform disappeared into the Caribbean Sea at 2:20 a.m., Ramirez said.

President Hugo Chavez announced the sinking on Twitter early Thursday, saying: “To my sorrow, I inform you that the Aban Pearl gas platform sank moments ago. The good news is that 95 workers are safe.”

The Singapore-flagged platform, built in 1977, has a capacity of 98 people and is owned by a subsidiary of Indian company Aban Offshore.“The company is assisting in assessment and in determination of the causes of the incident,” Aban said in a statement on its website.

Ramirez said officials are investigating, but there was a problem with the flotation systems of the semi-submergible platform that led to a massive water leak in one area.

He said alarms went off three hours before the sinking, giving the crew time to evacuate. Three workers including the captain stayed behind until it was clear that the platform was at risk of collapsing, and then abandoned the rig, Ramirez said.

Unlike the disastrous oil spill caused by a rig explosion off Louisiana on April 20, the sinking of the gas rig posed no apparent threat to the environment, officials said.

Ramirez said a tube connecting the rig to the gas field was disconnected and safety valves shut.

“There's no problem of any sort of any leak from the field into the environment,” Ramirez said. The rig was operating in waters about 525 feet deep.

Last week, Ramirez stood atop the platform on live television as its gas flare was lit to inaugurate the project. Chavez praised the project at the time as an important step in Venezuela's efforts to tap its huge natural-gas deposits, saying, “We're making history.”

The exploration platform at the Dragon 6 gas field was operated by the state energy company Petroleos de Venezuela SA off the Paria Peninsula of eastern Venezuela, near Trinidad and Tobago.

Venezuela, a major oil exporter and OPEC member, is exploring offshore natural-gas fields that are among the biggest known deposits in the world.

“Before starting operations, this platform was repaired, inspected and certified,” Ramirez told state television. He said it was certified as being “in optimal condition.”

Specialists will now use one of the robots on a separate drill boat to inspect the underwater structures that supported the platform to try to determine what went wrong, he said.

Officials have been flying over the area, and the evacuated workers were being taken by boat to the town of Carupano on the coast, Ramirez said.

Photo: Aban Pearl natural gas rig. Credit: Fairmount Marine