Latest Fire in the Gulf Has Little to Do With BP

Boats spray water on an oil and gas platform that exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on Sept. 2. Gerald Herbert / AP

Is offshore drilling just too dangerous? That’s what many were asking after yesterday’s fire on Mariner Energy's offshore oil platform, just a month after BP’s spurting well was finally plugged. Everyone  survived the latest accident off the Louisiana coast, and the Coast Guard is backing off its earlier assertion that there may have been a mile-long spill coming from the site. But the anxiety over offshore drilling has only intensified.

While the two accidents don't do much to help the image of offshore drilling, they appear to have little in common. The BP disaster took place on a drilling rig that was on the very cutting edge of oil exploration. The rig had previously drilled to the farthest depth ever attained: 35,000 feet.

By contrast the Mariner Energy’s platform that caught fire yesterday is a humdrum vessel in the oil world. The shallow-water platform isn’t involved in seeking out new wells. It has been where it is for 20 years and isn't going anywhere. The platform's only job is to pump oil from an existing well through pipes and back to shore. There are only about 150 of the more exotic drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and more than 4,000 platforms.

But the explosion, occurring in the same region as the Deepwater Horizon, comes across as another black mark on an industry still tarnished by the worst environmental disaster in history. “It’s shocking. One would think in the wake of the BP catastrophe every operator would be bending over backwards to assure the safety of their operations,” Elgie Holstein, oil- spill coordinator for the Environmental Defense Fund, told NEWSWEEK.

While fires on platforms are common, they are considered far safer than drilling rigs. Over the last 10 years there have been about 850 fires or explosions on platforms, according to Phil Flynn, an oil-industry analyst at PFGBEST. But many of the accidents had nothing to do with the oil being pumped. The fires are often started by industrial mishaps like welding or faulty electrical systems. “Many of the issues that happen on platforms are like what can happen at any factory,” says Nancy Kinner, codirector of the Coastal Response Research Center University at the University of New Hampshire. “Yesterday’s incident was not necessarily even related to oil production.”

The BP catastrophe occurred on a rig that pierces through layers of rock and sediment to get to depths far into the earth. As a result, oil and natural gas come spewing upward. “You are talking about 6,500 pounds of pressure per inch, with this stuff just flying up,” Kinner  told NEWSWEEK. The rig was in the process of sealing the well when the pressure grew unexpectedly and belched fire up through the shaft of the drill.

Are we seeing more of these accidents now than in past? Probably not. In 2009 there were about 75 accidents on platforms and rigs, according to documents from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. In 2008 there were more than 80, and in 2006 the number topped 90.

But regardless, the BP disaster, which will cost the company billions in damages and cleanup costs, has fixed the public’s attention on offshore oil. "This is a dangerous business, there is no question," says Flynn. “But if it weren’t for Deepwater Horizon, the Mariner Energy fire may not have even gotten a mention in the paper.”