Gulf Rig Explosion Highlights Offshore Drilling Risks

Putting out the blaze on the Black Elk Energy-owned platform. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Just one day after BP agreed to plead guilty to 14 criminal charges and pay a record-breaking $4.5 billion penalty for the Deepwater Horizon spill, another offshore drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico on Friday. Two workers missing, and of the 11 injured, four are critically injured with burns over much of their bodies.


Deepwater Horizon on fire, April 21, 2010. Photo: U.S. Coast Guard

Images of fire and dark plumes of smoke bear an eerie resemblance to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion, which killed 11 and poured 4.9 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.


The blaze started when workers were using a torch to cut an oil line on an oil platform owned by Houston-based Black Elk Energy Co. The Coast Guard said that no oil was leaking from the rig, which was offline for maintenance.


As the AP reports, there are several important differences between the Deepwater Horizon disaster and this accident:

Friday’s fire at an oil platform southeast of Grand Isle, La., was put out within hours, rather than burning for more than a day and causing the rig to collapse and sink.

The site of Friday’s blaze is a production platform in shallow water, rather than an exploratory drilling rig looking for new oil on the seafloor almost a mile deep.

A sheen of oil about a half-mile long and 200 yards wide was reported on the Gulf surface, but officials believe it came from residual oil on the platform.

“It’s not going to be an uncontrolled discharge from everything we’re getting right now,” Coast Guard Capt. Ed Cubanski said.

[Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Bobby] Nash said late Friday that monitoring continues to show no oil is coming from the well.


“This is yet another reminder that our work on oil drilling safety is not complete,” U.S. Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement.


Environmental groups echoed that notion.


“With the moratorium on drilling in the Gulf of Mexico lifted, the US has sold off millions of square miles of the Gulf to exploration and development, and production has rocketed past 2010 levels, expecting to reach record highs in 2013,” Marc Yaggi, executive director for the Waterkeeper Alliance, said in a statement. “Safety measures by the oil industry and regulation by government sadly lag behind the rush to drill, placing workers, the environment, and coastal communities at increasing risk.”


That doesn’t just apply to the Gulf. Oil companies, led by Shell, are looking to tap oil and natural gas in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas off of Alaska. Shell suffered setbacks earlier this year with its Arctic endeavors, most recently when its oil containment system failed.


And as Henry Huntington, science director of Pew’s Arctic program, told me earlier this year, an oil spill in those remote the waters could be devastating. “With the Gulf spill, there were ports, highways, [and] airports nearby, and responding to it was still hugely challenging. In the Chukchi, there are zero roads and little infrastructure to help mount a sizeable effort,” he says. “And, god forbid, what would happen if there were a spill near the end of the drilling season, with daylight rapidly fading and sea ice about to start forming?”

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