Did methane hydrates cause Deepwater Horizon explosion?


Last fall, I told you about methane hydrates—solid, ice-like lumps that form when molecules of methane are encased in a tasty candy shell of water molecules, kept at low temperatures and under high pressure.

These deposits are common in the Gulf of Mexico, and they're now playing a role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The formation of methane hydrate crystals was responsible for dooming efforts to cap the broken, bleeding well with a containment dome.

And there's some speculation that methane hydrates might have caused the blast that touched off the whole disaster. Remember, the hydrates are essentially compressed gas. And while they can sit, stable and safe, at the bottom of the ocean, changes in temperature or pressure can quickly launch an explosive breakdown.

While hydrates have been considered as a source of energy, themselves, they're a big concern for oil drilling in deep waters where the hydrates can form fast enough that you can watch them plug up a test tube in less than 10 minutes. The Deepwater Horizon was drilling in a region known for methane hydrate formation—less than 20 miles from a similar site where researchers are studying methane hydrates. An expert with access to BP's internal documents told Science that there are signs the Deepwater Horizon was having problem with hydrates before the deadly explosion happened.

About a month before the blowout, a "kick" of gas pressure hit the well hard enough that the platform was shut down. "Something under high pressure was being encountered," says Bea--apparently both hydrates and gas on different occasions.

Science: Did Pesky Hydrates Trigger the Blowout?

Longer analysis explaining the evidence in-depth at The Guardian

Image taken by Ian MacDonald, via Samantha Joye.


  1. Hydrates, Shoggoths, or Cthulhu. All can handle high pressure and are not too well understood.

  2. According to a witnesses, the mess was caused by BP ‘taking shortcuts’ in drilling the well. Methane hydrates may have caused the explosion, but it was BP that allowed it to happen because of willful negligence.

    “Senior managers complained oil giant BP was “taking shortcuts” by replacing heavy drilling fluid with saltwater in the well that blew out, triggering the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, according to witness statements obtained by The Associated Press.”


  3. From 60 minutes and other news outlets, the blowout was caused by a blowout preventer that was known to be faulty. The preventer was nudged by the drill rig, chunks of rubber were found in the recirculating drilling mud, and the decision was made to keep drilling instead of stopping and fixing the preventer. Those things are on all drilling rigs for a reason – because blowouts are not very rare events.
    So sure, methane hydrates could have caused the blowout, but the disaster was caused by the person who decided to keep drilling knowing that the blowout preventer was no longer functional. Whoever that was should be on the hook for 11 counts of manslaughter, before even getting to the decades of environmental devastation that decision directly resulted in.

    1. The 60 Minutes story described damage to the annular preventer, which seals around the outside of the drillpipe. The spec sheet for the DW Horizon shows that the rig has two annulars. It was failure of the shear rams–designed to cut through the drillpipe–that sealed the fate of the rig.

    2. “From 60 minutes and other news outlets, the blowout was caused by a blowout preventer that was known to be faulty”
      it doesn’t make sense to say that the failure of the blowout preventer caused the deepwater horizon explosion because the well was complete at the time of the explosion. i.e. when the explosion happened, the blowout preventer was scheduled to be removed and was no longer required. it’s the failure of the well itself that really needs to be understood.

      i also find it amazing that some people are implying that this explosion was bound to happen, that everyone (including BP) knew this would happen but were just too greedy/irresponsible to spend money to prevent it – and yet no-one can even explain what actually happened or why.

    3. No, the citizens of this country should be held responsible for demanding cheap oil so they can commute in giant SUVs and pickup trucks 50 miles to work and for allowing this country to become a suburban sprawl requiring endless driving

      The citizens of this country should be held responsible for supporting the massive use of plastics (made from oil) for water bottles, packaging, and endless streams of useless crap.

      The citizens of this country should be held responsible for having families with more than 2 kids pushing the population, and the resource demands that come with it, ever upwards.

      Those wells wouldn’t have been built and they wouldn’t be under pressure to cut corners if the market wasn’t supporting it all.

  4. The point of understanding hydrates and their involvement in the spill is simple. Methane hydrates are often located where deepwater oil and gas drilling occurs, and govt and industry have done their best to keep their existence quiet for two reasons. One, they refute the industries claims of being able to drill safely in deepwater, and two, they are considered the fuel of the future and exploiters dont want them seen in a bad light. Below is an article and links to studies that expose all of this.


  5. It is amazing how poorly these sources interpret the papers they use as evidence for these stories. Methane hydrates CAN NOT EXIST IN DEEP FORMATIONS, the temperature is too high. The Guardian story theorizes that the heat of cementing casing 13,000 feet below the seabed triggered the release of hydrates. The presentation referenced is:
    This describes cementing surface casing, the first string of casing in the shallow, unconsolidated formations close to the seabed. Slide 9 shows the phase diagram for hydrate stability. The diagram shows that hydrates do not exist deeper than about 500 meters below the seabed because temperature naturally increases with depth. Here’s a Department of Energy page on hydrate formation with more phase diagrams:
    The Deepwater Horizon drilled through the shallow formations that could have in situ hydrates months ago–and they have been sealed from the wellbore with multiple strings of steel casing.

    1. Methane hydrate migration into the well bore can occur after the drill string has passed through the MH bearing formations. The fact that there was a kick a month before the explosion highlights this potential and is the depth that needs to be considered as the source of the hydrate dissociation, not 13,000 feet below seabed. And the area that the DWH was operating in is known for cold temperatures underneath the seabed, with the hydrate stability zone existing for over 1000 meters. It is also in area known for both biogenic and thermogenic hydrates. The Mississippi Canyon is a fan that has been accumulating a biogenic source, Mississippi River sediments, for millions of years. If you would like documentation, please let me know.

      1. MH can’t migrate through casing into the well bore. The hydrate stability zone was cased off weeks or months before the well kicked. Look at the progress of the two relief wells–they’re in the process of running casing to 8650 feet (more than 1000 meters below the mudline) on the 2nd relief well. It was spudded 10 days ago and is already deeper than the MH stability zone.

        1. There have been many blowouts after casing has been set and cemented. The following is from John Wright Co. and written by Mobil Oil and Boots and Coots employees. These people are the experts in this field. Please note that everything quoted here explains exactly what happened in Ixtoc-1 and now DWH;

          Lost returns occur when kick tolerance is exceeded. But sometimes lost returns may occur before the kick is taken and an underground blowout will result.

          During drilling, casing holed by drill pipe wear or pipe defects can result in sudden lost circulation and an underground blowout. In producing wells, internal tubing corrosion or pipe defects can lead to failure and sudden imposition of tubing pressure on production casing. Defects or external corrosion of this outer casing can lead to either a subsurface or surface blowout depending on depth of the flowing zone.

          Gas flow after cementing is a major cause of surface annular blowouts.

    2. Also of note, from the url you have given, the following answers your question;

      • Shallow water flow may occur during or after cement job
      • Under water blow out has happened
      • Gas flow may occur after a cement job in deepwater environments that contain major hydrate zones.
      • Destabilization of hydrates after the cement job is confirmed by downhole cameras.
      • The gas flow could slow down in hours to days if the destabilization is not severe.
      • However, the consequences could be more severe in worse cases.

      1. You really need to take the time and understand the phase diagrams–the conditions of temperature and pressure required for methane hydrates to exist. Your paper lumps all shallow gas blowouts as being due to MH. Ixtoc 1 was in 200 feet of water–MH was as likely there as finding liquid water on the sun.

        Page 5: ‘loss of circulation’ means that drilling mud flows into the formation–hydrostatic pressure is higher than formation. Exactly the opposite of what you describe.

        1. The following is a list of warning signs that a kick is occurring. Please note number 5

          1. Pit Gain
          2. Increase in Flow Rate
          3. Improper Fill on Trips
          4. Drilling Rate Change
          5. Decrease in Circulating Pressure
          6. Increase in Stroke Rate
          7. Mud Gas Content Change
          8. Gas Cut Mud
          9. Water Cut or Chlorides Change
          10. Sloughing Shale
          11. Well Flows with Pumps
          12. Change in Mud Properties

          I dont know what phase diagram youre referring to. The depth of the seafloor has nothing to do with the depth of the MH formations under the seafloor, except that in shallower waters, the hydrates exist deeper under the seabed.

          1. Dan, I’d be defensive too if a 60 page report that I was trying to push onto the world stage was fundamentally flawed. In my first comment I posted two links, both which contain phase diagrams showing the pressures and temperatures required for MH to exist. Here’s the NETL one again:
            It clearly explains that water depth most certainly determines if hydrates can exist. Read the last 3 paragraphs and refer to Figures 3 and 4.

  6. In the German cataclysm-thriller novel “Das Schwarm,” rising global temperature has caused massive melting/dissolving of methane hydrates in the ocean floor– resulting in the continental shelf being set adrift and massive rifts in the earth’s surface around the globe and a general WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!! event.

    If I recall correctly.

    1. See also John Barnes’ excellent science fiction disaster novel: Mother of Storms (1994). A nuclear strike in the North Pacific releases vast amounts of methane from hydrates, causing immense, civilization-threatening hurricanes.

  7. Did methane hydrates cause Deepwater Horizon explosion?

    May as well ask, Did Hydrogen Hydroxide cause Deepwater Horizon explosion?

    Or did it auto-combust due to high levels of deuterium?

  8. A very good book by Liz Jensen – ‘Rapture’ explores this type of explosion (on a much bigger scale). Recommended read.

  9. Correct me if I’m wrong, but AFAIK the official BP line is precisely that it was methane hydrates. So, uh, the answer to the question posed by the headline is “yes”.

  10. I have read that capping the leak along with simultaneous input of methanol into the cap from a separate smaller tube would eliminate the methane hydrates. Any truth to that? If not, is there not any similar approach that could have been taken once the leak was established?

  11. from the nytimes

    The concern with the method BP chose, the document said, was that if the cement around the casing pipe did not seal properly, gases could leak all the way to the wellhead, where only a single seal would serve as a barrier.

    Using a different type of casing would have provided two barriers, according to the document, which was provided to The New York Times by a Congressional investigator.

    Workers from the rig and company officials have said that hours before the explosion, gases were leaking through the cement, which had been set in place by the oil services contractor, Halliburton. Investigators have said these leaks were the likely cause of the explosion.

  12. This is from a training manual that can be found at http://www.iadc.org/wellcap/WCT-2DWI.pdf

    The kick encountered from the DWH and Ixtoc-1 was methane. The most likely source of this is either hydrates or free gas underneath which is usually relic hydrates. It is in the formation of the hydrates that the pressure is magnified 164 times. Free gas that was once hydrated will be under this intense pressure as well as hydrates as they dissociate. Once again, please note number 3

    A. Unintentional flow or “kick” from a formation
    1. Failure to keep hole full
    2. Swabbing effect of pulling pipe
    3. Loss of circulation
    4. Insufficient density of drilling fluid, brines, cement, etc.
    5. Abnormally pressured formation
    6. Lowering pipe too rapidly into hole (surge)
    7. Annular gas flow after cementing  Identify causes of unintentional flow or “kicks.”

  13. In my post above, I should have made clear that the list is from the training manual. The paragraph above the list should have been above the url given.

  14. Im well aware of the needs for the hydrate stability zone. Now please explain in a way that an intelligent person can understand, what is your point.

    And thank you for reading my 60 page report. Hopefully you learned something.

    1. Point 1: Ixtoc 1 and other shallow-water blowouts described in your paper can not possibly be blamed on in-situ methane hydrates because they can not exist at the downhole temperatures, from drill floor to TD.

      Point 2: The blowout on the Deepwater Horizon could not be caused by in-situ methane hydrates because they only exist in the shallow, poorly consolidated formations near the mud line. Any release of these hydrates due to cement temperatures would be outside of the casing and they would have bubbled up from the seabed like fish farts, not up through the well and marine riser.

    2. PS: if you click on the highlighted ‘comment from zumba..’ in my post #26 you’ll see I was replying to your post #22:

      Quoting zumba: “I dont know what phase diagram youre referring to. The depth of the seafloor has nothing to do with the depth of the MH formations under the seafloor, except that in shallower waters, the hydrates exist deeper under the seabed. ”

      I presented a link to the The National Methane Hydrates R&D Program that explicitly contradicted your statement. What more can I do?

  15. With the surface temperature heating up due to sunlight absorption from the oil plumes, what are the chances of the gulf bottom reaching temperatures that it hasn’t seen in millions of years with a consequential escape of methane from the deep ocean?

  16. Here’s an idea – pump water into the well to form the hydrate and seal it! The escaping oil has methane, which formed the hydrate and spoiled the first top hat attempt, acording to some.
    Please comment on this fix.

    PS – transient hydrocarbon “hydrates” are extremely important to our biological structure. They shape proteins and thus hold our bodies together.

  17. what does it matter anymore what caused it?
    the disaster has happened and if we do not stop this type of destructive enterprise it will happen again.
    JUST STOP!!!!


  18. An Open Letter to the Offshore Oil and Gas Industry, Especially BP
    The first part of this letter explains the analytical route I used to come to the conclusions in my report concerning hydrates in shallow waters (see link below). Right or wrong, my theory is now a mute point and needs to be put to bed for the time being. The second part discusses the current situation in the Gulf and what needs to be done. This part is important as time is of the essence.
    First, it takes four things for methane hydrates to form – methane, water and the right mix of pressure and temperature (P/T). A common culprit given for historical blowouts in shallow waters outside the stability zone (HSZ) is “overpressured gaseous sands”, a result of rapid sedimentation. When these sediments are buried before all water can be expelled, increasing overpressure occurs. As the pressure builds, and biogenic methane has formed, that which now exists in the pore spaces is methane and water coming under increasing overpressures. At some point, the P/T boundary is crossed and the methane and water is converted to methane hydrates.
    Then, after a period of time, the burial process pushes temps too high and the hydrates dissociate, leaving behind a gas pocket under intense pressure. I call these formations “relic hydrates”. They can also be found under the HSZ where they’re called free gas pockets.
    It is relic hydrates that produce the biggest bang for the buck and have blown oil rigs out of the water. But it is the hydrating stage that initially produced the intense overpressures via compressing the gas 164 times.
    If my theory is right, there are hydrate and relic hydrate pockets scattered in shallow waters wherever rapid sedimentation occurs (ie offshore jungles, forests, major river systems etc), and you will never be able to safely extract hydrocarbons from these areas because you’ll never be able to manage these shallow hydrate formations. And unlike formations in the HSZ and below, where hydrates and relic hydrates are expected, these pockets are unpredictable and undetectable, like claymore mines in a field.
    But irrespective of whether or not my theory is valid, methane formations of all types in both shallow and deep waters have caused hundreds of blowouts in the last 40+ years. That you still ignore the dangers of drilling through these methane formations is a clear indication that you don’t deserve to be in our ocean waters, extracting our resources and destroying our environment.
    Hopefully this puts to rest concerns over the validity of my report so we can instead focus on the current situation. My read of it is this;
    From day one people in both our gov’t and your industry have known that the casing below the BOP has been compromised and any attempts to kill the well at the mudline are being done to force the blowout underground, hoping it stays there. This, however, doesn’t seem likely, as the intense heat from the oil and the intense pressure from dissociating hydrates will find a path through the hydrate fields above. I also suspect that the casing has been breached in numerous places >500 MBSF. The reason I believe this is because the hydrate fields in this area extend from the seafloor to the bottom of the HSZ. And the reason I believe that is because the Mississippi River system is one of the world’s greatest producers of sediment. And most of this sediment dumps into the ocean and quickly drops to a deep coldwater catch basin, the Mississippi Canyon, a perfect breeding ground for hydrate formation. This is why our gov’t and your industry have formed a partnership to put the world’s first seafloor methane hydrate research lab here.
    All of this points to the probability that the hydrate beds in the Mississippi Canyon are massive and deep. This also means that the relic hydrates run massive and deep below the HSZ. And it is these relic hydrates that broke through the production casing and caused the final devastating kick. This pocket has now been depleted and it has changed the pressure ratio causing the hydrates above to dissociate in mass, and not just around the wellbore. Cratering has probably occurred and I suspect a flow path has opened up away from the well.
    At this point solutions are difficult to come by. Any attempts at killing the well above the mudline will not solve the problem. And I would love to think that your relief well idea will work, but you couldn’t even get one well to hold in this area, and now your going to drive two more wells through the same formation. It’s doubtful this will work, and could leave us with two or three blowouts instead of one.
    What needs to be done is simple. An independent investigation with the world’s best engineers, geologists etc needs to be given unlimited resources and a full reign to try and come up with a solution to capping the well, even if it means having to blow the well, which I suspect will have to be done. We need to know what is happening in a wide area around the well. We need to know if the underground blowout has penetrated the seafloor. We need to know the extent of cratering and if shallow water flows have occurred
    Too much time has been wasted by you putting band-aids on a lacerated artery, with the US gov’t standing by acting as your lap dog. There has been very little effort to understand the full problem I.E. the condition of the well below the BOP, the involvement of hydrates, the toxicity of the dispersants and the plumes under the surface of the water that they have created etc etc etc.
    At this point the American people need to consider the blowout a crime scene and stop letting the criminals dictate who can investigate what.
    Dan Zimmerman
    Northcoast Ocean and River Protection Association
    PS. I loved your wording in the original plan for the DWH that states that in the unlikely event of a blowout, you have the resources and knowhow to control it. You guys are such kidders, you crack me up.
    PPS. Stop ponding faultlines with massive bursts of P and S waves via seismic testing. You’re pushing them to the breaking point you idiots.

  19. Increased pressure is the only way I know to explain ever greater flow estimates from a bore of given size.

    Sure seems possible to me that a methane hydrade deposit has been disturbed with two results:

    1) compressive failure of casing in a hydrate layer

    2) the water of the methane hydrate being forced under pressure into an underlying oil deposit.

    I sure hope that standard thinking of where hydrate deposits can occur is correct and that any relief wells are WELL below.

  20. So based on comments, media, hearsay and other sources, what caused this was:
    BP shortcuts favoring faster startup and thus more money.
    BP negligence for maintenance.
    Faulty equipment.
    Operator error.
    Methane Hydrates.
    Bad listening skills (BP seemed to ignore their own Geologists, chemists, engineers, etc.)
    Bad luck (face it, it’s out there).

    Overall… I think we have just enough technology to do what they want, but not enough to do it right. Had they polished their safety technologies, brought in adequate resources (not using inferior materials in the borehole, fluids, batteries, whatever), then in theory, they’d have had an enormous victory. Instead… Wow. We’re facing a possible ecosystem catastrophe.

    Well, I always did like Book of Eli and The Postman….

  21. The oil well should have been secured by correct repair or replacement of the rig valve and there should be more than one. Gas is well known in oil drill since the 1960s offshore and before that right back to the early days and is usually a hazard, that fire should not have occurred and twaddle about what controls the well block after the explosion is not useful from chemists who cannot find an answer to spills when asked some decades ago. Ten minutes is life and death in a laboratory and a very long time unless the lab assistant is mucking about instead of doing the work correctly. This is an oil rig, Geology and technology and unfortunately politics and cheap oil. Transocean was obviously unstable.
    They say there is a shortage of chemistry teachers, I doubt it, there were too many in 1969 working for ICI and causing most of this mess and far too many in the 1970s according to UK government. Anyway God is the ultimate teacher, for His sake and yours listen. Otherwise you will make an illegal judgement about methane at Lancashire pump explosion which did happen in “court” of kangaroos. MD Stagg BScWales MSc hydrology soils Geology Portishead Somerset England

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