Shallow-water platform fire raises wider questions on oil safety

By David A. Fahrenthold and David S. Hilzenrath
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 11:48 PM

The fire Thursday at an oil platform off the Louisiana coast 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, both the White House and the petroleum lobby offered little comment. But others - in Congress and in environmental groups - rushed out statements that 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 that we have a big shallow-water drilling explosion right now."

The Coast Guard and the platform's owner, Houston-based Mariner Energy, said they had not yet determined what led to the fire. Experts said if it had not happened in this place, during this summer, it might not have attracted much notice: Last year, for instance, there were 133 fires or explosions on rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

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

But, at this touchy moment, the differences between the two accidents could be precisely the point.

The Deepwater Horizon blast had contradicted previous promises from Obama and the oil industry that offshore drilling was safe. Thursday's fire threatens to undermine an idea that will be key to moving on from that disaster: that most drilling is still safe, outside of the harder-to-plug wells in very deep water.

"What it does bring to light is that there are risks with oil and gas production . . . that are associated with activities that go beyond deepwater drilling," said Donald F. Boesch, the president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and a member of a presidential commission charged with learning the lessons of the BP spill.

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. Wells of 500 feet or less accounted for 33 of 39 blowouts in that period.

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. "The moratorium they imposed is going to be a financial disaster for the Gulf Coast, Gulf Coast employees and Gulf Coast residents.''

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 allegedly taking inadequate steps to control hydrogen sulfide pollution, according to the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement's Web site.

The oil lease involved in Thursday's accident was acquired when Mariner took over a company called Forest Oil in 2006. That year, several crew members at another Forest Oil platform were so concerned about safety problems that they took a boat to shore, according to a government report. Their boss stayed behind and was killed when equipment ejected from the well.

Patrick Cassidy, a Mariner spokesman, said in an e-mai: "We believe the outcome today where no one was injured is an example of learning from past mistakes and having good procedures in place. Proper procedures were followed. No one was injured today and no oil spilled from the wells."

fahrenthold@washpost.com hilzenrath@washpost.com

Staff writers Kimberly Kindy and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

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