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BSEE: Methane exposure potentially ‘catastrophic’ for helicopters during offshore operations

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Washington – Exposure to low levels of methane and other combustible gases can lead to “catastrophic” consequences for helicopters traveling to and from offshore oil and gas platforms, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement recently cautioned.

BSEE said the announcement was spurred by an agency study – conducted in collaboration with PricewaterhouseCoopers and currently under peer review – that found the presence of combustible gases may cause power loss in a helicopter’s turbo-shaft engines at concentrations significantly lower than initially estimated.

“The intake of a highly combustible gas can result in a sudden change in helicopter engine performance,” BSEE Chief of Office of Offshore Regulatory Programs Doug Morris said in a press release. “We have been out sending alerts on the issue of aviation safety and methane releases for some time, but we are now concerned that even low levels of gases can be extremely dangerous.”

The study, which BSEE emphasizes has not yet been approved and so “does not represent any official BSEE finding or policy,” states that 178 helicopters crashed in the Gulf of Mexico between 1983 and 2009, with 54 of those crashes resulting in 139 fatalities. Partial or total loss of engine power was cited in 31 percent of the fatal crashes and 71 percent of the nonfatal crashes.

Morris said BSEE is working with its aviation team to determine future research options for new technology that may reduce the risk of combustible gas exposure for helicopters engaged in offshore operations.

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