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Vermilion 380 Explosion Reignites Drilling Fears

Vermilion 380 Explosion Reignites Drilling Fears

On Thursday, a manageable explosion on a Gulf Coast oil rig reignited fears founded by the BP spill and revived calls for a reassessment of the country’s drilling policies.

Just before 9 a.m. Thursday morning, the Vermilion Oil Rig 380 exploded. Unlike the Deepwater Horizon rig, this one was located in shallow waters. By late afternoon, a sheen of oil had been spotted, spreading a mile long from the burning rig; but by Friday morning the Coast Guard was saying that was a mistake — there was no sheen.

Mariner Energy, the company that owns the well, said the fire burned off the oil used to power the well and was out by 3 p.m. The rig had seven actively producing oil wells, but they were quickly shut off after the fire began.

Media coverage and the spill

After more than four months of worry over the BP oil spill, the entire political apparatus — politicians and journalists, activists and lobbyists — shot into action at the news of the fire.

In April, when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, the media was slow to realize how serious a disaster the explosion represented. (The Mulch was as guilty as anyone else: the rig exploded April 20, but on April 23, this column featured the Cochabamba climate conference.) BP’s initial estimates of the spill’s volume, later increased by thousands of barrels per day, encouraged this impression.

On Thursday, however, the Vermilion story topped the agenda. Groups like the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity blasted out reactions, and as Andrew Restuccia reported at The Washington Independent, drilling opponents like Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) seized on the incident to push their legislative agenda.

“As the U.S. Coast Guard responds to this latest incident, we must redouble our efforts to accelerate the push for clean, renewable energy and end our nation’s dependence on oil,” Lautenberg said, in a statement.

Ticking time bombs in the Gulf

It looks like this explosion, unlike the one at BP’s Macondo well, will not extract a lasting price from the Gulf. That doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. Like the BP explosion, the Mariner incident shows the systemic risk that drilling requires. The system would benefit from better regulation and oversight.

Consider this image, from Mother Jones, that shows 33,000 miles of pipeline, 50,000 wells, and thousands of abandoned rigs.

At Earth Island Journal, Jason Marks puts Thursday’s explosion into perspective. “Sure, this incident is frightening, and in that sense it’s newsworthy,” he writes. “But the fact is that fires, explosions, spills, and blowouts aren’t all that uncommon in the Gulf’s industrial archipelago…accidents happen all the time in the ocean oil fields.”

Oil on the mainland

The ocean isn’t the only place where the industry presents a danger, either. Grist’s Jonathan Hiskes flags a recent spill in North Dakota totaling more than 1,000 barrels of oil. And the Michigan Messenger has been reporting for more than a month on the fall-out from a significant pipeline spill in that state.

It’s notable, however, that incidents like these aren’t getting as much attention as Thursday’s non-spill. They represent real environmental disasters for the communities affected, but because they’re more than 100 miles from BP’s well, their problems don’t raise the same fears.

Follow through

Politicians like Lautenberg who want to clamp down on drilling would do well to keep playing off of those fears, however. By the time Congress was ready to respond to the BP incident, stories about the spill had become so routine as to be easily tuned out. Even if the Mariner explosion has a minimal environmental impact, the specter of Deepwater Horizon could breath new life into legislative efforts to limit drilling.

“The best outcome would be that the only lasting impact is political,” writes Change.org’s Jess Leber. “Let this incident — “accident” already seems too light — be more than just a reminder that the existing deep water moratorium needs to be in place longer….It should tell our elected officials they need to stop listening to inflated claims by the oil industry, and start looking at the evidence right before their eyes. All offshore drilling, in all its forms, needs to be re-examined at minimum.”

Should Obama lift the drilling moratorium?

The Obama administration has been making noise about lifting the drilling moratorium early, but perhaps this new incident will push the White House to reconsider. Over the past few months, president has had terrible timing vis-à-vis drilling: as soon as he made it a keystone of a compromise on the Senate’s energy bill, the BP spill happened. Now, just as his team has started making noise about lifting the ban, this explosion triggers memories about how bad the BP spill really was.

What if this explosion had triggered another oil spill? A temporary moratorium on new deep water drilling is not enough to make the entire endeavors of oil extraction a safe one. Mother Jones’ Kate Sheppard puts a fine point on it:

The moratorium was put in place so regulators could evaluate whether offshore drilling can be done safely. And despite the outcry from the industry, the moratorium is only temporary (six months), and it’s only on new exploratory operations. It doesn’t even touch the existing deep water platforms, or drilling in shallow waters. If anything, today’s news should be an indicator that we need to take the time to evaluate all offshore operations.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the environment by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. 


TAKE ACTION: Enough explosions! Tighten rules on oil rigs!


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photo credit: thanks to L.C.Nøttaasen via flickr
Please note: the image is not of the Vermilion rig
by Sarah Laskow, Media Consortium blogger

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24 comments

+ add your own
7:26PM PDT on Sep 19, 2010

The interviews that I've seen with "whistle blowers", speaking of oil companies know well how unsafe their practices are, the evidence and documentation is there, what part of that do the lawmakers fail to understand? They all need shut down.

7:22AM PDT on Sep 8, 2010

Let us make Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill a global issue. The world needs need transnational regulation for ocean floor exploitation.

2:26PM PDT on Sep 7, 2010

NO MORE OIL!!

1:53PM PDT on Sep 5, 2010

now is the time to turn away from oil as a fuel, and begin serious industrial interest in alternative energy sources. Actually 30 years ago would have been better, but we always seem to wait for a crisis before taking action.

12:49PM PDT on Sep 5, 2010

No more drilling! Investment in sustainable alternative energy must be a priority, not fossil fuels. Take the profit out of politics and hold Senators, Congresspersons, Members of Parliament and local governments accountable for wasting time on environmental legislation that will stop drilling, stop the destruction!

9:47AM PDT on Sep 5, 2010

every night when I sit on my front porch and look down the sidewalk at my solar lights, I am distracted by a neighbor two doors down that has her yard lit up like it is Christmas, she has a light in every window, lights strung around her back deck, around trees in the front....yes something has to be done about our energy usage and we need to somehow get these peoples heads our of the sand.

9:55PM PDT on Sep 4, 2010

thanks for the info

6:37PM PDT on Sep 4, 2010

Something needs to change with this country regarding energy policies.

5:43PM PDT on Sep 4, 2010

Close them all and inspect. Only reopen those that pass a rigorous testing.

1:36PM PDT on Sep 4, 2010

Thanks for the article.

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