Offshore Drilling: Unsafe at Any Depth?

| Thu Sep. 2, 2010 4:33 PM EDT

The Gulf spill has been fading from the headlines for weeks now, but today's explosion of an oil platform 200 miles west of the last disaster has renewed calls for closer scrutiny of offshore drilling.

The Vermilion Oil Platform 380 blew at around 9 a.m. While the company said in a press release earlier that "no hydrocarbon spill was reported," the Coast Guard later reported that a one-mile long, 100-feet wide sheen of oil could be seen extending from the platform. Now the Coast Guard says there is no sheen.

But there are reports that as many as seven wells are connected to this platform, and it was in production at the time of the blast. Mariner Energy, the platform's owner, has confirmed that it produced "approximately 9.2 million cubic feet of natural gas per day and 1,400 barrels of oil and condensate" in the last week of August. These figures suggest that a spill from this site would be much smaller than the amount that gushed from BP's well for weeks, but just how much crude the Vermilion site could leak is unclear at this point.

Mariner is a former subsidiary of Enron, and it's been involved in 13 accidents since 2006. While the details of what happened Thursday are murky, this latest explosion underscores several points—and has reinvigorated the call to put the brakes on offshore drilling.

Notably, the site of today's explosion is in water that is significantly shallower than BP's well, about 340 feet deep. These shallow water operations are considered much "safer" than deep waters. The six-month moratorium on new oil drilling projects (which is set to expire by the end of next month) doesn't apply to permits in shallow waters. The Interior Department said in a statement in July that shallow-water operations "do not present the same type or level of risks as deepwater drilling operations." But as the unfolding Vermillion disaster indicates, shallow water drilling is still risky.

Enviros rushed out statements pointing to the episode as yet another example of why there should be a time-out on all offshore activities. "It’s another reminder that drilling accidents happen all too frequently," said Oceana senior campaign director Jacqueline Savitz. "We cannot afford to lose any more human lives, nor can we tolerate further damage to the gulf and its irreplaceable ocean ecosystems."

Michael Brune, Sierra Club's executive director, said: "How many disasters will it take until our leaders decide to act? We don't want to see one more oil disaster. The BP disaster was supposed to be the wake up call, but we hit the snooze button. Today the alarm went off again."

Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee have already blasted out a letter to Mariner CEO Scott D. Josey requesting a briefing from Mariner on the incident and its possible causes.