Federal authorities are investigating the cause of a blaze that broke out Thursday (Sept. 2) while a 13-member painting and cleaning crew was working aboard an oil and natural-gas platform in the Gulf of Mexico.
U.S. Coast Guard helicopters planned this weekend to survey the site of Mariner Energy Inc.’s Vermilion Block 380 platform, about 100 miles off the Louisiana coast, to determine whether the platform was leaking oil. Coast Guard vessels and aircraft were also maintaining surveillance of the area.
Mariner said automated shutoff equipment had “safely turned off the flow of oil and gas from the platform's seven producing wells before the fire occurred and the crew evacuated,” but some witnesses reported seeing a sheen on the water nearby.
In addition to the Coast Guard, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEM) (a division of the Interior Department), and Mariner Energy will conduct investigations into the incident.
‘Presence of Mind’
The 13 workers abandoned the platform when the fire broke out. Huddled together and floating in immersion suits (commonly known as “Gumby suits”), they were safely rescued about 40 minutes later by an offshore supply vessel about a mile away.
"These guys had the presence of mind, used their training to get into those Gumby suits before they entered the water. It speaks volumes to safety training and the importance of it because, beyond getting off the rig, there's all the hazards of the water such as hypothermia," Coast Guard spokesman Chief Petty Officer John Edwards told reporters.
The fire broke out just after sunrise in the living quarters, as the crew was painting and cleaning the platform, Patrick Cassidy, director of investor relations for Mariner Energy, told the New York Times.
The OSV, the Crystal Clear, took the crew to another platform, and the Coast Guard flew them to hospitals. The Coast Guard said one person was injured; Mariner said there were no injuries.
Engulfed in Flames
The incident began at 9:19 a.m. CDT Thursday, when the Coast Guard received a call from a nearby platform, saying the Mariner rig was engulfed in flames, said Capt. Peter Troedsson.
Coast Guard equipment dispatched to the area brought the fire under control about 12:30 p.m.; the fire was declared extinguished about 3:30 p.m.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Mariner had told him that the fire began in 100 barrels of light oil condensate, but officials did not know yet what sparked the flames. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs also said it was “too early to know” the cause of the blaze.
Witnesses told the Coast Guard that the platform had exploded, but Cassidy said, “[T]here was no blowout, no explosion, no injuries, no spill.”
Shallow Water Production
Houston-based Mariner Energy is an independent oil and gas exploration, development, and production company with principal operations in the Permian Basin, Gulf Coast and the Gulf of Mexico.
Once owned by Enron, Mariner is now due to be sold to Apache Corp. of Houston. That $2.7 billion deal was announced April 15 and is pending shareholder and regulatory approval, an Apache spokesman said.
Mariner’s Vermilion 380 is a shallow-water production platform in about 340 feet of water, not a deepwater drilling rig like BP’s Deepwater Horizon 200 miles east, which exploded April 20, killing 11 workers and triggering the nation’s biggest offshore oil spill ever.
The Mariner platform produces 1,400 barrels of oil and condensate as well as 9.2 million cubic feet of natural gas daily, officials said.
Moratoriums and Delays
The federal government imposed a moratorium on deepwater drilling after the BP disaster. The ban was set to expire Nov. 30, but the Vermilion incident may change that, some observers said.
“This incident will increase pressure on the federal government to prolong the moratorium,” Gianna Bern, a former BP crude trader, told Bloomberg News. Bern’s firm, Brookshire Advisory & Research Inc., in Flossmoor, IL, provides risk-management advice to oil producers.
“I don’t think it’s going to matter much to regulators that this wasn’t a deep-water installation and that nobody got hurt. Scrutiny of the whole industry will intensify.”
Although there is no official moratorium on shallow-water operations, the Shallow Water Energy Coalition has accused BOEM of deliberately stalling on issuing permits, causing a de facto ban.
Industry representatives met in July with BOEM Director Michael R. Bromwich and Louisiana officials “to provide further guidance and clarity to shallow water drilling operators regarding compliance with BOEM’s new safety and environmental requirements,” the agency said.
Separately, Bromwich and the Interior Department announced recently that BOEM would restrict its use of categorical exclusions for offshore oil and gas development to activities involving limited environmental risk, while it took a fresh look at the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) process and the use of categorical exclusions for exploration and drilling on the Outer Continental Shelf.