Oil-rig blast raising new safety questions


The fire at an oil platform off the Louisiana coast this week may not, in the end, do much harm to the Gulf of Mexico. But it could still mean trouble for both the Obama administration and the oil industry – by raising new questions about the Gulf’s oil fields.

The industry and the White House have battled each other all summer over a six-month moratorium on deepwater oil drilling imposed by the Obama administration after the historic spill from the Deepwater Horizon rig.

But, within that fight, there was common ground: Both sides seemed to agree that there was less of a crisis among the Gulf’s other rigs. That would include those in shallower water, less than 500 feet deep, and those platforms that merely pumped oil instead of drilling for it.

Then, on Thursday, a shallow-water pumping platform caught fire.

In the hours afterward, Congress and environmental groups raised wider questions about oil safety.

“This is a shallow-water platform, and that’s the key here. Since the beginning of this crisis, the Obama administration has attempted to limit the crisis to deep-water drilling and to suggest that shallow-water oil drilling is safe,” said Kieran Suckling of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group. “I’m not in the least bit surprised.”

The Coast Guard and the platform’s owner, Houston-based Mariner Energy, said they had not determined what led to the fire.

“This appears to be an industrial accident. Little or no pollution. In shallow waters,” said Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane Energy Institute in New Orleans. “There is very little here that is analogous to the Deepwater incident.”


At the Deepwater site on Friday, crews removed the failed blowout preventer from the BP well, an important step toward killing the well for good, and a hopeful development for federal investigators who view the device as key evidence that will be inspected to determine why it did not shut off the disastrous undersea gusher.

The device will likely be hauled to the surface from 5,000 feet below the sea sometime Saturday, and will then be taken by barge to a National Aeronautics and Space Administration facility in New Orleans, a federal official said. Next, crews will affix a new, stronger blowout preventer.

Government officials said the new device will help them deal with any surges in pressure when they intersect the well from the bottom and inject it with mud and concrete as part of the “bottom kill,” which is intended to provide an enduring seal for the well.

The Deepwater Horizon explosion killed 11 crew members and the well leak spewed an estimated 4.9 million barrels of oil, resulting in the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

Now, the similarities and differences between the two accidents are at the forefront.

The Deepwater Horizon blast had contradicted promises from Obama and the oil industry that offshore drilling was safe. Thursday’s fire threatens to further undermine that confidence of safety, outside of the harder-to-plug wells in very deep water.

On Capitol Hill, three top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to Mariner Energy, requesting a briefing on Thursday’s accident.

In May, the Obama administration imposed the six-month moratorium, which effectively stops all new drilling in water deeper than 500 feet. The administration has said that technology makes shallow-water leaks easier to plug.

But accidents happen in both deep and shallow water. In 2007, for instance, a journal article written by federal regulators found that 80 percent of 15,077 Gulf wells were in 500 feet of water or less. And, between 1992 and 2006, these accounted for roughly the same ratio of “blowouts,” a kind of accident where oil and gas shoot uncontrolled to the surface.


The oil industry has blasted the moratorium as economically crushing. On Wednesday, the oil lobby held a “Rally for Jobs” in Houston. Among those in attendance, according to a Financial Times report, was Mariner official Barbara Dianne Hagood.

“I have been in the oil and gas industry for 40 years, and this administration is trying to break us,” she said, according to the Financial Times. Federal records show that Mariner has a history of alleged safety violations. In June, Mariner Energy paid a $20,000 federal fine for an alleged regulatory violation on an offshore platform, according to government records. The heliport on the platform was taken out of service as a result of a fire, leaving a boat landing as the only access to the structure, and inspectors found that the boat landing’s grating was corroded and its handrails were missing.

In May, Mariner Gulf of Mexico LLC paid a $35,000 fine for taking inadequate steps to control hydrogen sulfide pollution, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

Including Thursday’s fire, Mariner has now had 16 fires at its offshore facilities since the beginning of 2007. Most were minor, federal records indicate.

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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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