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Sep 3, 2010 9:11 PM by Alison Haynes

What now for Gulf? Fire complicates drill debate

WASHINGTON (AP) - What now for the Gulf?
News of another oil rig fire in the Gulf of Mexico, so soon
after the BP oil spill, has set off a wave of anxiety along the
Gulf Coast and prompted calls for the government to extend its
six-month ban on deepwater drilling.
Just when it seemed the Obama administration might be ready to
lift the unpopular ban, the fire raises new questions about the
dangers of offshore drilling, leaving the industry wondering when
it can get back to work.
"Anything that casts any kind of shadow on the industry right
now certainly complicates lifting the moratorium," said Bruce
Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern
Methodist University in Ten Hillis and James difficult to continue
to say that (the BP spill) is an aberration."
But while initial reports were frightening, Bullock and other
experts said Thursday's platform fire is unlikely to have a lasting
effect.
Unlike the April explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig - which
killed 11 people and led to the largest offshore oil spill in the
nation's history - the fire at the Mariner Energy Inc. platform 100
miles south of Louisiana killed no one and sent no crude gushing
into the water.
"There's over 100 fires in the Gulf in a given year. Were it
not for the BP incident this would receive very little coverage,"
Bullock said. "This could have happened in a meat factory or a
paint factory or anywhere else."
Even so, environmental groups and some Democratic lawmakers
rushed to denounce offshore drilling and urged the Obama
administration to extend the six-month deepwater ban to shallow
water as well. The current ban has shut down drilling at 33 ocean
wells, but there still are more than 7,300 active leases in the
Gulf of Mexico, 58 percent of them in deep waters, according to the
American Petroleum Institute.
There are about 3,400 platforms operating in the Gulf, pumping
about a third of America's domestic oil.
The latest fire "is another reminder that drilling accidents
happen all too frequently. We cannot afford to lose any more human
lives, nor can we tolerate further damage to the Gulf and its
irreplaceable ocean ecosystems," said Jacqueline Savitz of the
environmental group Oceana.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a leading critic of BP, said the
fire highlights the risks associated with offshore drilling.
Lawmakers "have a duty to ... all oil workers to make sure the oil
industry's drilling practices are safe and sound," Markey said.
The Interior Department has said it is considering lifting the
ban for certain categories of rigs before the scheduled Nov. 30
expiration. But after Thursday's accident the department may
hesitate to act.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said he didn't think
the incident would affect the drilling moratorium. Gibbs resisted
any effort to link the platform fire to the BP spill.
"At this point, based on what we know, I don't want to marry
those two up," Gibbs told reporters Thursday.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Friday that the platform
fire appeared to be an industrial accident.
"At this point, it doesn't seem like there was any oil that was
released out so the oil pollution is not an issue, and it's not
another Deepwater Horizon issue," Salazar said at a news
conference in Anchorage.
Industry representatives also distinguished between the two
incidents, saying that the fire did not involve drilling and
occurred on a production platform where wells have already been
drilled and sealed, rather than a drilling rig like the Deepwater
Horizon.
Mariner Energy said there were seven active production wells on
its platform, but they were shut down for maintenance shortly
before the fire broke out. A crew was on the platform painting and
sandblasting when the fire occurred, a company spokesman said
Friday.
Lee Hunt, chief executive of the International Association of
Drilling Contractors, said those urging tighter restrictions on
offshore drilling were overreacting.
"These things have happened and been reported before" and
generated little media attention, Hunt said.
Still, Hunt conceded that the timing of the fire was "not
fortuitous," adding that he expects upcoming congressional
hearings on the Mariner fire to be a "minor circus."
Hunt called the fire a "major blast" similar to one at a
land-based refinery.
"As a geographical workplace, you would expect some fires. Just
like you'd expect some chemical storage facilities ... will
occasionally have three-alarm fires on land," he said. "They do
happen."
Federal authorities have cited Mariner Energy and related
entities for 10 accidents in the Gulf of Mexico over the past four
- rs, 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.
A day before the fire, the American Petroleum Institute held a
"Rally for Jobs" in Houston to protest the drilling moratorium.
Mariner official Barbara Dianne Hagood was among those in
attendance, according to a Financial Times report.
"I have been in the oil and gas industry for 40 years, and this
administration is trying to break us," she told the London-based
paper. "The moratorium they imposed is going to be a financial
disaster for the Gulf Coast, Gulf Coast employees and Gulf Coast
residents."
Charlotte Randolph, president of the Lafourche, La., Parish and
an outspoken critic of the moratorium, said the outcome of
Thursday's platform fire proved that the oil and gas industry has
effective safety procedures.
"The people were safely recovered. The oil did not spill. It's
everything the Deepwater Horizon was not," she said.

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