Fire damage to Gulf production rig called minimal


Federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement investigators boarded Mariner Energy Resources’ Vermilion Block 380 platform off the Louisiana coast on Friday to begin an investigation into the cause of a fire that caused 13 workers to abandon the platform on Thursday.

A spokesman for Mariner Energy said the company sent its own investigators to the platform Friday to conduct their own search for the cause of the fire.

A Coast Guard helicopter conducting surveillance around the platform spotted a light rainbow sheen nearby Friday morning.

“The residual sheen, about a hundred yards long by ten yards wide, is believed to be petroleum runoff caused by fire-fighting efforts,” a Coast Guard news release said. The BOEM investigators confirmed the source of the sheen and that oil was not flowing from wells on the platform.

The federal investigation is being led by BOEM’s Investigations and Review Unit, and will be conducted jointly with the U.S. Coast Guard.

“We are all relieved that the 13 personnel on the platform were rescued safely,” said BOEM director Michael Bromwich, in a news release announcing the investigation. “We are continuing to closely monitor this situation, which will be investigated fully. We will use all available resources to ensure that we find out what happened, how it happened, and what enforcement action should be taken if any laws or regulations were violated.”

The production platform is located in 340 feet of water about 102 miles off Vermilion Bay, and serves seven wells that produce oil and natural gas. Mariner Energy said in a statement Thursday that its crew members were able to shut off the flow of oil and gas from all the wells before abandoning the platform.

Damage to the platform from the fire appeared to be minimal, Mariner Energy spokesman Patrick Cassidy said. He said the company interviewed crew members when they were brought to shore on Thursday as part of its investigation.

He said the company was cooperating with BOEM and Coast Guard officials.

“The fire occurred in an area on the other side of the platform from the well bay,” where piping from the underwater wells enters the platform, he said. “The damaged sections were the living quarters and the areas around it. You have different pieces of equipment there.”

“We’re looking at a couple of months,” Cassidy said when asked when the platform would resume production.

Bromwich established BOEM’s Investigations and Review Unit in June, saying that part of its mission was “to respond swiftly to emerging and urgent issues on a bureau-wide level and in the industry.”

It is charged with assessing significant events, including accidents, and coordinating BOEM’s response. Thursday’s accident occurred just 210 miles west of the site of the April BP Macondo well blowout, which killed 11 rig workers and created what has been called the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Despite the differences between the two accidents — the Macondo incident occurred aboard a drill ship and involved a well-drilling operation that went awry in water more than a mile deep, while the Mariner Energy fixed platform sits in only 340 feet of water and its wells are already in place — several local and national environmental groups on Friday cited the new accident as a reason to keep the Interior Department’s six-month moratorium on drilling operations in deep water in place.

“The oil industry continues to rail against regulation, but it’s become all too clear that the current approach to offshore drilling is simply too dangerous,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. “We don’t need to put American workers and waters in harm’s way just so multinational oil companies can break more profit records.”

But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters in Anchorage, Alaska, on Friday that the Mariner Energy incident seemed like no more than an industrial accident.

“At this point, it doesn’t seem like there was any oil that was released out so the oil pollution is not an issue, and it’s not another Deepwater Horizon issue,” Salazar said.

According to records available at BOEM’s web site, Mariner Energy reported 16 fires on several platforms in the Gulf of Mexico during four years from 2006 through 2009. All were relatively minor incidents involving welding, the operation of electric generators, or maintenance procedures.

According to the BOEM records, the company also was found to be responsible for several offshore spills of oil and drilling fluid in accidents or as the result of hurricanes. In a 2001 accident involving the transfer of drilling fluid from a supply ship to a drilling rig in the Gulf off Galveston, Texas, 429 barrels of zinc bromide was spilled..

Another spill of 537 barrels of drilling mud occurred during drilling operations in 2004 in 4,675 feet of water about 75 miles off the Mississippi coast.

In September 2008, Hurricane Ike destroyed a rig that was drilling a Mariner Energy well 73 miles off Louisiana, causing a spill of 103 barrels of oil that was stored on the platform.

Mariner Energy and ENSCO were also credited with the loss of 550 barrels of refined products and 634 barrels of drilling fluid when the jack-up rig ENSCO 74 was lost during Ike. The rig was found the next March when it was struck by another vessel 115 miles from its drilling location.

Another 70 barrels of completion fluids were list in a December 2008 accident charged to Mariner Energy and Rowan Drilling for an accidental release aboard a Rowan rig 74 miles off the Louisiana coast.

The company actually received a regional award for safety from the former Minerals Management Service at a Metairie ceremony on April 15, five days before the BP accident. BP was to have received a national version of the Safety Award for Excellence from MMS in May, but the ceremony was cancelled.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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