Drilling Moratorium Extended?

Jim Brown
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If environmental groups have their way the Mariner Energy platform explosion could extend the moratorium well into 2011.

Earlier this week the Mariner Energy production platform known as Vermillion 380 suffered a fire and explosion that pushed 13 workers to jump into the sea. The news of the platform fire immediately brought back four months of fear and worry about the impact of an oil spill on the gulf coast and the potential damages to the environment.

Later news explained that the seven wells serviced by that platform were shut in at the time of the fire due to ongoing maintenance on the platform. The fire started near the crew quarters and was believed to be fed by fumes from a painting party that was brought onboard that morning.

There was no oil or gas spill and there were no injuries. The platform produces 9.2 mcf of gas and 1,400 barrels of oil per day. It is a shallow water production platform in 340 feet of water and has been producing since 1982.

Mariner Platform (Image Times-Picayune /Landov)

The Coast Guard scrambled two fixed wing aircraft and four Coast Guard cutters to the rig. There were as many as seven helicopters onsite since any news of a burning rig produces an instant desire to take pictures in hopes of capturing the next big news story. As you can see from the picture below the workers were waiting patiently for a boat to arrive and pluck them from the water. None were injured.

Mariner Workers (AFP/Getty Images)

Mariner is being acquired by Apache and both companies said there was no impact on the acquisition.

If this accident had happened six months ago nobody would have noticed. It would have garnered a couple paragraphs in the local New Orleans papers. After the Horizon accident lawmakers were quick to summon executives from Mariner to Washington to answer questions about the fire later this week. Three democrats requested the briefing be held before next Friday.

The director of investor relations for Mariner was emphatic when discussing the event. "There was no blowout, no explosion, no injuries and no spill!" Originally there was thought to be one injury because a couple workers were holding another worker up in the water. It was explained later that this worker could not get to the life jackets because of the heat from the flames and was forced to jump without one. The other workers were simply keeping him afloat. Louisiana's governor visited the men in the hospital where they were taken to be checked out. Does that show you just high profile a platform accident is today?

The fire rekindled the debate over the drilling moratorium and gulf oil production in general. Even though there was no spill and the platform was not covered by the moratorium it gave environmentalists new ammunition to use in pressing for a ban on offshore oil activities.

They have slim and no chance of enforcing their wishes. Even if the administration wants to use this accident to continue the moratorium and it will eventually be canceled. We get 20% of our oil from the gulf and the industry employs tens of thousands of workers and supports hundreds of thousands indirectly from the gulf activity.

If the administration extends the moratorium it is only going to cost them more votes in November. What this accident will probably do is further strengthen the amount of regulations that cover any offshore activity. The Sierra Club was quick to claim "The industry's current approach to offshore drilling is simply too dangerous." Democrat Senator Frank Lautenberg (NJ) said, "the blast and fire is further proof that offshore drilling is an inherently dangerous practice." Never let it be said that a politician lets any opportunity for a sound bite to go to waste.

It is unfortunate that a paint fire can cause this much grief when we were so close to a resolution on the BP spill and nearing the end of the moratorium. Let's hope calmer heads prevail over the coming weeks and this fire is quickly forgotten.

Jim Brown

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