BP suffered well blowout on Azerbaijan oil field: US cables

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An oil platform in Azerbaijan operated by BP suffered a well blowout and a huge gas leak around a year and a half before the Gulf of Mexico spill, leaked US diplomatic cables revealed on Thursday.

The British energy giant was lucky it managed to evacuate its 212 workers safely after the incident, which led to two fields being shut and output being dramatically cut, according to the cables released by website WikiLeaks.

The news came as the United States filed a lawsuit against BP and eight other companies for billions of dollars in damages over the devastating Gulf oil spill, the worst in US history.

In the Azerbaijan incident, BP suffered the blowout in September 2008, as well as the gas leak which the firm acknowledged at the time, according to the cables, revealed in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

"Due to the blowout of a gas-injection well there was 'a lot of mud' on the platform, which BP would analyze to help find the cause of the blow out and the gas leak," said one of the US dispatches.

Another cable revealed that the company had a narrow escape after the gas did not catch fire.

"Given the explosive potential, BP was quite fortunate to have been able to evacuate everyone safely and to prevent any gas ignition," said the cable.

"[BP's then head of Azebaijan, Bill] Schrader said although the story hadn't caught the press's attention, it had the full focus of the [government of Azerbaijan], which was losing '40-50 million dollars each day'."

The leak and blowout happened at the huge Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli (ACG) field in the Caspian Sea, just one of BP's operations in Azerbaijan, where it has a dominant position in the energy market.

It occurred on the Central Azeri platform, and the first signs of a problem were detected when bubbles appeared in the waters around the site, said one cable.

"Shortly thereafter, a related gas-injection well for Central Azeri had a blowout, expelling water, mud and gas," said the dispatch.

BP declined to comment on the incident, the Guardian reported. It told the paper that BP "enjoys the continued support and goodwill of the government and the people of Azerbaijan."

Details of the blowout emerged in cables that are part of a cache of around 250,000 US diplomatic dispatches, which were leaked to whistleblower website WikiLeaks and are being slowly released.

The Azerbaijan leak happened around 20 months before the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico, which sent nearly five million barrels of oil gushing into the sea.

The blast killed 11 workers and the resulting torrent of oil fouled the environmentally fragile Gulf coasts for three months before it was capped.

© 2010 AFP

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