Thursday, July 25, 2013

Fire breaks out on evacuated Gulf gas well

Story Originally Appeared in Seattle Pi

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An out-of-control natural gas well off the Louisiana coast caught fire late Tuesday, hours after 44 workers were safely evacuated from the drilling rig following a mid-morning blowout, a federal agency confirmed.

No injuries were reported as a result of the fire, Eileen Angelico, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, told The Associated Press.

She said it wasn't known what caused the gas to ignite. It also wasn't clear early Wednesday how and when crews would attempt to extinguish the blaze. BSEE said earlier Tuesday that a firefighting vessel with water and foam capabilities had been dispatched to the scene.

Wild Well Control Inc. was hired to try to bring the well under control. Angelico said Wild Well personnel approached the well earlier Tuesday night, before the fire, but they determined it was unsafe to get closer when they were about 200 feet away from it.

The gas blowout was reported Tuesday morning.

The Coast Guard kept nautical traffic out of an area within 500 meters of the site throughout the day. The Federal Aviation Administration restricted aircraft up to 2,000 feet above the area.

BSEE said inspectors flying over the site soon after the blowout saw a light sheen covering an area about a half-mile by 50 feet. However, it was dissipating quickly.

Earlier this month, a gas well off the Louisiana coast flowed for several days before being sealed.

Officials stressed that Tuesday's blowout wouldn't be close to as damaging as the BP oil spill of 2010, in which an oil rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded off the Louisiana coast, killing 11 workers and eventually spewing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. It was the worst offshore environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Chris Roberts, a member of the Jefferson Parish Council in south Louisiana, said the travel restrictions might pose an inconvenience for participants in an upcoming deep sea fishing tournament.

"It could change some plans as to where some people plan to fish," he said.

Tuesday's blowout occurred near an unmanned offshore gas platform that was not currently producing natural gas, said Angelico. The workers were aboard a portable drilling rig known as a jackup rig, owned by Hercules Offshore Inc., which was a contractor for exploration and production company Walter Oil & Gas Corp.

Walter Oil & Gas reported to the BSEE that the rig was completing a "sidetrack well" — a means of re-entering the original well bore, Angelico said.

The purpose of the sidetrack well in this instance was not immediately clear. A spokesman for the corporation didn't have the information Tuesday night. Industry websites say sidetrack wells are sometimes drilled to remedy a problem with the existing well bore.

"It's a way to overcome an engineering problem with the original well," Ken Medlock, an energy expert at Rice University's Baker Institute said. "They're not drilled all the time, but it's not new."

Monday, July 22, 2013

Newark Revival Wears Orange Along the Rive

Originally Appeared in the New York Times

NEWARK — Perhaps few places in America represent the urban trauma of the 1960s more than this city. Deindustrialization, corruption, suburban flight and calamitous planning gutted its core, tore up neighborhoods and helped fuel rebellion in the streets. The whole toxic environment was encapsulated in the desecration of the Passaic River, which borders Newark. It became a dumping ground for dioxin from the defunct Diamond Shamrock Chemicals Company, which manufactured Agent Orange.

 But a quiet upheaval is turning that river, polluted as it may be, into a front line of reclamation. It’s a common approach these days, from Seoul to Madrid to San Francisco: upgrading cities by revamping ravaged waterfronts. Urban renewal strategies from decades past, which did so much to destroy places like Newark, are being turned on their heads. The idea here is to make the Passaic a point of pride. You can see the sign of change in a new stretch of fluorescent orange boardwalk along the riverfront, an eye catcher for passengers on trains rumbling over the bridge into Newark Penn Station.

Phase 1 of Riverfront Park, as it is called, was completed last summer: a $15 million complex of playing fields on formerly derelict land, a couple of miles north of a giant sewage treatment plant, in the Ironbound district. This traditionally Portuguese working-class neighborhood avoided urban renewal 50 years ago and has thrived, partly as a consequence.

The Ironbound also sidestepped the redevelopment movement of the 1980s, which produced alien, corporate sites like Battery Park City. Residents and vigorous neighborhood groups like the Ironbound Community Corporation welcomed the new fields, which, since opening, have become a citywide attraction.

Phase 2 is set to open on Aug. 3, just upriver from the fields: the 800-foot-long, $9.3 million orange boardwalk, designed by the veteran landscape architect Lee Weintraub, in collaboration with the city’s planning office.

In this cash-starved city, nearly half the money has come from the state, the rest from federal and county sources, along with private contributions solicited by the mayor, Cory A. Booker, and the nonprofit Trust for Public Land.

The ultimate goal, said Damon Rich, Newark’s planning director, is to create more than three miles of greenway, a riverfront ribbon with bike and walking paths stretching all the way through downtown to residential neighborhoods in the north.

Accomplishing that will require decades of political perseverance. “It doesn’t get more challenging than a waterfront park on a brownfield next to a Superfund site,” as Adrian Benepe, the director of City Park Development at the Trust for Public Land, and a former commissioner for New York City parks, put it. This is an especially tall order in a poor city notorious for unreliable governance. A timely coalition of environmental groups, Essex County leaders and Mr. Booker came together to complete the first phases. The mayor is now running for United States Senate. Whether early successes with the park will propel the project onward, whoever ends up in charge, is an obvious question.

Another is whether big change can happen here without gentrification driving out the very people the plan tries to help. The city administration says it wants to avoid exactly that. Many residents, accustomed to broken promises and fearful of investments that only produce quarantined office parks, are already wary.

“When the city center was destroyed by urban renewal, it became a place to avoid, a place to pass through,” said Mindy Fullilove, a professor at Columbia University and a New Jersey native who writes on urban affairs. “Now the riverfront can become an urban edge shared by everyone — a point from which to build the city back. The problem of urban renewal has been that when we’ve had an idea, it usually isn’t a good one, and when we have a good one, we don’t put money into it. The hope this time is that things will be different.”

These are changing times. Cities, which banked so much on fancy buildings, are increasingly finding new life and a fresh identity in public spaces that connect neighborhoods and communities. Planning gurus for years preached that waterfronts were no more than working ports and dumping grounds for industrial waste and the poor. Canals were paved with concrete and riverbanks lined with highways, factories, housing projects and railroads. According to this gospel, cars and freeways were good for failing cities, and urban density was bad.

The notion that industry might someday dry up, that economic development and public health would depend on clean, leisure-oriented waterfronts seemed almost inconceivable not even half a century ago. But environmental concerns and digital revolutions have reversed thinking. The proof is on the streets. Downtowns are coming back where residents and cities are stressing public transit over cars, density over sprawl, diversity over suburban flight.

In Newark’s case, repairing the damage will not be easy. Mr. Rich, the planning director, led the way on foot the other morning from the train station to the new boardwalk. The trip required crisscrossing streets with meager accommodation for pedestrians, clambering up the exit ramp of an old bridge and hugging the gutter of a four-lane boulevard that lacks traffic lights allowing people to cross into the park. Along the way, he pointed out a riverside brownfield, the former Market Street Gas Works, now a cleanup project for PSE&G, the utility company. Next door, a grim mirrored-glass office building, headquarters for New Jersey Transit and Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, squatted atop a multistory garage.

 It’s hard to envision how Riverfront Park will get around those obstacles.

And then there is the river. A state court ruled two years ago that Occidental Chemical Corporation, the successor to Diamond Shamrock, was principally liable for the costs (from $1 billion to $4 billion) of cleaning up the Passaic, but the company has contested the ruling. The next phase of Riverfront Park, to be completed in the spring, envisions the boardwalk stretching toward Penn Station. Restoring parts of the riverfront in the ethnic and racial mix of northern neighborhoods, for equity’s sake, will present a whole fresh set of hurdles.

Still, what has been built so far goes a long way. If a single downtown building like the Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters separates the city from its river, a modest stretch of boardwalk knits them back together. At a ball field across the boulevard from the new park, Marcelino Arce, a youth baseball coach, described how some children in the Ironbound neighborhood had no idea the river was even there. Now, they must dodge traffic on the boulevard; but once across, he told me, it’s “a whole new world.”

That world includes a few zigzagging walking paths, with signs, by MTWTF, a graphic design firm, recounting the history of the river and its industries. There is an osprey rookery built into a copse of trees at an overlook onto the river. The city still needs to install those traffic lights and the park needs more seating.

As for the boardwalk, made of recycled plastic, its bright orange can summon up what Christo and Jeanne-Claude called “saffron” to describe the color of their “Gates” in Central Park. But police cones may leap to mind. Or Agent Orange. For his part, Mr. Weintraub said the orange was picked after eliminating various gang-related colors. Whatever. It is not ideal.

Newark deserves an elegant waterfront. That said, the orange boardwalk also acts like a giant highlighter, drawing attention to the park — as the project hopes to draw people from all over the city back to the Passaic, one patch of recuperated riverfront at a time.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Shell Picks New Chief Executive

Story Originally Appeared in The New York Times

LONDON — Royal Dutch Shell, Europe’s largest oil company, surprised markets on Tuesday by naming Ben van Beurden to succeed Peter Voser as chief executive on Jan. 1.

 Mr. van Beurden, a Dutch national who is 55, has headed Shell’s large marketing and refining business since January and has been a key player in its liquefied natural gas business, in which Shell is the world leader among publicly traded oil companies.

He was chosen by Shell’s board over better-known candidates including Andrew Brown, head of exploration and production; Marvin Odum, head of the company’s Americas business; and Simon Henry, the chief financial officer, well-known to investors.

“This will be something of a surprise to analysts who widely expected” Mr. Henry to be chosen, said Peter Hutton, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets in London. “However, it was always clear that Shell would appoint the person it felt had the best combination of skills for the job, not necessarily the best known to the external community.”

Shell shares rose Tuesday in London..

Mr. Voser had said in May that he would step down next year after less than five years in the top job, news that also surprised the markets. He said he wanted to spend more time with his family, which had remained in his native Switzerland while he worked at Shell headquarters in London.

Previously chief financial officer, Mr. Voser had helped stabilize Shell after a scandal over misstating oil and gas reserves. While uncomfortable in the limelight, he is thought to have improved the implementation of big projects like the $20 billion Pearl gas-to-liquids plant in Qatar that have come to distinguish Shell.

The standard spot for chief executives-in-waiting at major oil companies is the exploration and production division, which is usually the big profit earner.

Shell differs from other major oil major companies like BP by stressing big long-term projects that lack the tremendous potential financial rewards of oil exploration but produce steady returns with lower risk.

Liquefied natural gas tends to earn returns in the relatively modest 10 percent to 15 percent range, analysts say, but it produces steady cash flows for decades with little additional capital expenditure.

Shell has invested around $40 billion in the business in recent years. It hopes to cash in on growing use of gas in China and other developing countries.

It is also one of the few companies that is investing large sums in gas-to-liquids plants, the monster installations required to transform natural gas into fuels like diesel. And it is the leader in the still-unproven technology of building gigantic floating vessels to process liquefied natural gas in remote locations.

Mr. van Beurden was involved in the floating vessels at the early stages and is also credited by some with turning around the now-profitable chemicals business when he headed it from 2006 to 2012. He reconfigured Shell’s American chemical plants to use low-priced gas feedstock rather than oil.

In an industry where access to oil and gas is increasingly competitive, Shell hopes a demonstrated ability to design and manage megaprojects will give it a competitive advantage.

Mr. van Beurden’s experience appears tailored to Shell’s strategy. For instance, he has 10 years in Shell’s liquefied natural gas business. That business, along with gas-to-liquids, earned Shell $9.4 billion of its $25.1 billion in profit last year.

“Ben will continue to drive and further develop the strategic agenda that we have set out, to generate competitive returns for our shareholders,” Shell’s chairman, Jorma Ollila, said in a statement Tuesday.