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Oil Rig Explosion Fuels Fire of Offshore Drilling Debate

Offshore oil and gas platform

The explosion on a production platform Thursday in the Gulf of Mexico has intensified an already spirited national debate about offshore oil and gas development.

Thirteen workers were rescued from the water after evacuating a fiery production platform in the Gulf of Mexico, 100 miles off the Coast of Louisiana.  No injuries were reported among the thirteen workers and the owner of the platform, Houston-based Mariner Energy, Inc. (NYSE:ME) says the automated shutoff equipment on the Vermillion 380 platform safely turned off the flow of oil and gas from the platform’s seven producing wells “before the fire occurred and the crew evacuated.”

Although few similarities can be drawn between the BP/Deepwater Horizon incident that poured oil into the Gulf of Mexico all summer and the fire Thursday on a Mariner Energy oil and gas production platform, the latest incident is raising the hackles of groups on both sides of the offshore drilling debate.

While opponents of offshore oil and gas development say the incident is just one more bit of evidence that the practice of exploring and developing oil and gas resources off the U.S. coast is dangerous and expensive, proponents argue that small fires like those that occurred Thursday happen all the time and that the incident should do nothing to slow the administration’s plans of lifting the moratorium on new offshore drilling in the U.S.

‘Another reminder that drilling accidents happen all too frequently’

Unlike the BP oil spill, which was caused by an explosion and fire on a deepwater exploratory drilling rig with a wellhead one mile below the surface, the Vermillion 380 platform was a production platform operating in just 340 feet of water. And although the Mariner Energy platform was not covered under the current six month moratorium put on deepwater drilling by the Obama administration, critics of offshore drilling used the opportunity to make their case that offshore oil and gas exploration and production is dangerous and becoming increasingly so.

U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey, said the blast and fire in the Gulf of Mexico “is further proof that offshore drilling is an inherently dangerous practice.”

And Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, U.S. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), called on the administration “to immediately redouble safety reviews of all offshore drilling and platform operations in the gulf.”

In California, where a new well hasn’t been drilled since a 1969 blowout off the coast of Santa Barbara led to the nation’s now third-largest oil spill, lawmakers also seized on today’s incident to bolster their case against drilling any new wells.

“This should serve to remind us all why the State of California has not allowed any new drilling in state waters for the last 41 years,” said California Assemblymember Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara), who has led the opposition to a proposal by Plains Exploration and Production Company to drill for oil in California Coastal Sanctuary Waters 3 miles from Santa Barbara.Deepwater Horizon on Fire

Environmental groups echoed the sentiment of many lawmakers, arguing that both regulation and forward thinking are needed.

Thursday’s explosion “underscores the need for the U.S. to maintain its moratorium,” said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director for Washinton, D.C.-based Oceana, in a statement Thursday. “It’s another reminder that drilling accidents happen all too frequently,” said Savitz.

Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said that as the oil industry continues to rail against regulation, “it’s become all too clear that the current approach to offshore drilling is simply too dangerous.”

“Instead of pursuing more dangerous, dirty, outdated offshore drilling, we could be investing in clean energy and a 21st century transportation system that would create good, safe jobs and infuse new life into our economy,” added Brune in a statement.

Thursday’s explosion “underscores the need for the U.S. to maintain its moratorium,” said Jacqueline Savitz, senior campaign director for Oceana, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group

More than 100 offshore oil fires annually in Gulf

Oil and gas industry experts say small offshore platform fires are relatively commonplace and most are dealt with quickly. According to the Interior Department, of the more than 100 fires reported on rigs and platforms every year for the last four years, only a handful caused more than $25,000 in damage.

“Accidents need to be monitored and they have the potential to cause major problems,” said Andy Radford, senior policy adviser for offshore issues at the American Petroleum Institute. “But in most cases, they are minor in nature and are controlled rather quickly.”

But Mariner Energy is no stranger to accidents on its fleet of Gulf of Mexico platforms — nor the federal citations that come with them. According to the Los Angeles Times, the company has reportedly been involved in more than a dozen offshore accidents in the Gulf of Mexico in the last four years, including at least four fires and a blowout.

And in a moment of unfortunate timing for the company on Wednesday–just one day before the fire on Vermillion 380–a Mariner Energy official called out the Obama administration at a rally in support of lifting the moratorium in Houston.

“I have been in the oil and gas industry for 40 years, and this administration is trying to break us,’’ said Barbara Dianne Hagood, senior landman for Mariner Energy, The Financial Times reports.

“The moratorium they imposed is going to be a financial disaster for the gulf coast, gulf coast employees and gulf coast residents,” said Mariner’s Hagood.

Photos: Some rights reserved by Ken Lund; Deepwater Horizon fire courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Related posts:

  1. White House: New Oil Drilling Moratorium Not ‘One Size Fits All’
  2. Obama Says ‘Oil spill has made it clear more reform is needed,’ Cancels Offshore Lease Sales (w/Video)
  3. Obama Admin: No More Regulatory Shortcuts for Deepwater Drilling Projects


Tim Hurst's picture

Thank Tim for the Post!

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Paul O's picture
Paul O on September 4, 2010

Oil drilling is and has always been dangerous, and I mean always. Moreover there have been spills and explosions for over a century of oil exploration, this is the risk that oil workers know only too well, and they have accepted that risk  by the way.

In this modern era, technology is constantly being developed to reduce the dangers, from oil exploration, and to help prevent oil spills. My hope and expectation is that technology and procedures continue to be refined to make oil spills and loss of life from explosions even less than they are.

Realistically our energy security and economic needs dictate that we continue to explore for oil and gas into the near term foreseeable future. We should take care not to be swayed by alarmist whose ulterior motive is to stop oil and gas exploration, while not overlooking the risks involved.

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