NEW ORLEANS – An oil platform exploded and burned off the Louisiana coast Thursday, the second such disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in less than five months. This time, the Coast Guard said there was no leak, and no one was killed.
The Coast Guard initially reported that an oil sheen a mile long and 100 feet wide had begun to spread from the site of the blast, about 200 miles west of the source of BP’s massive spill. But hours later, Coast Guard Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesau said crews were unable to find any spill.
The company that owns the platform, Houston-based Mariner Energy, did not know what caused the fire. Mariner Energy’s Patrick Cassidy said he considered the incident a fire, not an explosion.
“The platform is still intact and it was just a small portion of the platform that appears to be burned,” he said.
Mariner officials said there were seven active production wells on the platform, and they were shut down shortly before the fire broke out.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the company told him the fire began in 100 barrels of light oil condensate.
Photos from the scene showed at least five ships floating near the platform. Three of them were shooting great plumes of water onto the machinery. Light smoke could be seen drifting across the deep blue waters of the gulf.
By late afternoon, the fire on the platform was out.
The platform is in about 340 feet of water and about 100 miles south of Louisiana’s Vermilion Bay. Its location is considered shallow water, much less than the approximately 5,000 feet where BP’s well spewed oil and gas for three months after the April rig explosion that killed 11 workers.
All 13 of the platform’s crew members were rescued from the water. They were found huddled together in life jackets.
Environmental groups and some lawmakers said the incident showed the dangers of offshore drilling, and urged the Obama administration to extend a temporary ban on deepwater drilling to shallow water, where this platform was located.
“How many accidents are needed and how much environmental and economic damage must we suffer before we act to contain and control the source of the danger: offshore drilling?” said Rep. Frank Pallone, a New Jersey Democrat.
There are about 3,400 platforms operating in the Gulf, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Together they pump about a third of America’s domestic oil, forming the backbone of the country’s petroleum industry.
Platforms are vastly different from oil rigs like BP’s Deepwater Horizon. They are usually brought in after wells are already drilled and sealed.
“A production platform is much more stable,” said Andy Radford, an API expert on offshore oil drilling. “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 drilling rig.”
In contrast, platforms are usually placed atop stable wells where the oil is flowing at a predictable pressure, he said. A majority of platforms in the Gulf do not require crews on board.
Platforms do not have blowout preventers, but they are usually equipped with a series of redundant valves that can shut off oil and gas at different points along the pipeline.
Industry representatives sought to minimize Thursday’s incident and distance it from the well blowout in April. “We have on these platforms on any given year roughly 100 fires,” said Allen Verret, executive director of the Offshore Operators Committee.