UPDATE: Gulf of Mexico oil platform explodes west of Deepwater Horizon site – still unknown whether oil is leaking

Publish date: September 2, 2010

NEW YORK – An offshore petroleum platform exploded and was burning Thursday in the Gulf of Mexico about 80 miles (130 kilometres) off the Louisiana coast, west of the site of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig explosion on April 20. It is currently unknown if this newest explosion has caused a leak but officials had reported seeing no oil on the surface as of early afternoon US time.

The fire on the oil production platform owned by Mariner Energy was said by officials to be completely extinguished by about 5 pm eastern daylight time after having burned for hours. The platform, said company officials, was not producing. The fire was reported to the US Coast Guard by a commercial helicopter that flew over the site Thursday morning.

It is currently unknown if this newest fire has caused a leak of oil, but many officials had reported seeing no oil on the surface as of early afternoon US time. Yet Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, still beleaguered by the ***Deepwater Horizon spill, told reporters that an oil sheen was seen stretching a mile from the site of the explosion.

The Washington Post reported however, that it has not yet been officially established whether this sheen was due to the explosion or to natural oil leaks that are prone to occur in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil Sheen still in question

The US Coast Guard had also earlier in the day confirmed an oil sheen, but was backing off of those assertions by the time the fire was extinguished.  

Company officials with Mariner Energy insisted that its production platform had burned, not exploded, and that the fire may have broken out in crew living quarters. They could offer no reason as to the cause of the fire.
Meanwhile, many environmentalists, Washington officials, and Gulf Coast residents are bracing for what seems to many like a take two of BP’s catastrophe just less than five months ago.

Bellona says there are still many unknowns at the moment, and it is unclear why an explosion would occur on a platform that was not producing.

“Of course, you get very scared and wary when accidents like this happen so soon after the Deepwater Horizon and so close to where that spill occurred,” Bellona President Frederic Hauge said.

“Yet even when there has been an extreme focus on the safety of the platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, this happens, so it needs to be deeply investigated.”  

The Coast Guard says no one was killed in today’s blast, which was reported by a commercial helicopter flying over the area Thursday morning.

All aboard accounted for

All 13 people aboard the rig have been accounted for, with one minor injury. They were first transported to another platform by rescue vessels and were reportedly headed for land by late afternoon.

Before being rescued by the support boats, all 13 workers were given special immersion suits to protect them from the water, said Coast Guard chief petty officer John Edwards.

Coast Guard Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesau said some of those from the rig were spotted in emergency flotation devices. Seven Coast Guard helicopters, two airplanes and three cutters were dispatched to the scene from New Orleans, Houston and Mobile, Ala., Ben-Iesau said.

Federal government promised it was at the ready

The federal government was prepared to respond to the situation if there had been reports of an oil leak, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said.

Gibbs added that President Barack Obama was in a national security meeting, and he was unaware if the president was informed of the blast.

The Mariner Energy platform is located in shallow water, approximately 340 feet (105m) from the floor of the Gulf. The well drilled by the Deepwater Horizon – which has since been capped – was 5000 feet (1500 meters) beneath the surface of the water

Responding to any oil spill in shallow water would be considerably easier than in deep water where crews must depend on remotely operated technology on the sea floor.

“Right now we’re focused on search and rescue and then, ultimately, as this thing progresses we’re going to be looking into the cause,”  Edwards said.

Mariner Energy Spokesman Patrick Cassidy told the CNN TV network the blast occurred “quite a ways away” from any wells.

Cassidy confirmed the platform was not in production at the time of the explosion.

Production platforms versus rigs

A homeland security update passed to the Associated Press said the burned platform had been producing 58,800 gallons of oil and 900,000 cubic feet of gas a day before maintenance work began. The platform can also store some 4,200 gallons of oil. Mariner Energy said the well had been drilled in 2008.

There are about 3,400 platforms operating in the Gulf of Mexico, which account for a third of the oil produced domestically in the United States, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

Platforms are very different from rigs like the Deepwater Horizon. They are usually brought in after wells have already been drilled and sealed.

“A production platform is much more stable,” Andy Radford, an API expert told AP. “On a drilling rig, you’re actually drilling the well. You’re cutting. You’re pumping mud down the hole. You have a lot more activity on a rig.”

By contrast, platforms are usually placed atop stable wells where oil is flowing at a predictable pressure, and a majority of platforms in the Gulf do not even require crews.

Additionally, platforms in shallower waters stand on legs that are drilled into the sea bed and spread numerous pipelines across the sea floor and can tap into many wells at once.

Platforms lack blowout preventers, but they are usually equipped with redundant valves that can shut off oil and gas at various points along the pipeline. Many platforms were damaged during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which broke pipelines and spilled oil into the Gulf. But Radford underscored that platforms successfully kept major spills from occurring.

Mariner Energy cited by authorities for accidents

The structure that burned Thursday had been undergoing maintenance activities prior to the blast, Melissa Schwartz, spokeswoman for Bureau of Energy Managemen,t Regulation and Enforcement – formerly known as the Minerals Management Service –  told the BBC.

The latest explosion comes a little more than four months after the blast ripped through a Deepwater Horizon rig run by BP, causing about 204 million gallons of oil – the largest accidental spill of oil in history – to be released into the Gulf of Mexico. That explosion killed 11.

Federal authorities have cited Mariner Energy and its affiliates for 10 accidents in the Gulf of Mexico over the last four years, according to safety records from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement.

The accidents range from platform fires to pollution spills and a blowout, according to accident investigation reports from the bureau.

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