Platform fire stokes fresh criticism of offshore oil development

Coming just one day after a legal settlement in connection with the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Friday’s platform fire off the Louisiana coast drew immediate criticism from oil industry foes, despite few similarities with the BP disaster.

“This is yet another reminder that our work on oil drilling safety is not complete,” said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. “This incident raises a number of questions about the nature and adequacy of safety measures on this offshore rig.”

Frances Beinecke, the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a member of the presidential commission that investigated the 2010 spill, said the accident is a fresh reminder that “offshore drilling is an inherently dangerous business.”

“Though the BP criminal case is settled, today’s accident makes clear that the hazards of oil and gas drilling are not in America’s rear view,” Beinecke said. “We need stronger safeguards and increased oversight to reduce the risk of accidents, and we need to prioritize safer forms of energy that don’t threaten the lives of our workers and foul our waters.”

In fact, the incident at Black Elk’s facility on Friday appeared very different from the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig two years ago that killed 11 workers and unleashed the nation’s worst oil spill.

Unlike the Deepwater Horizon rig, Black Elk’s platform was not drilling; instead, it is an offshore production facility tied to seven production wells. All of those shallow-water wells were shut in for a construction project, which reduces the likelihood of a spill from the oil reservoir itself.

Black Elk Energy CEO John Hoffman told a Houston television station that workers on the platform were cutting a 75-foot pipe at the time of the accident. It contained as much as 75 gallons of produced materials, which could have ignited and could also leak into the Gulf.

Offshore explosions and fires are relatively common. According to the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement that oversees offshore drilling, there have been 74 fires and explosions just this year — and a total of 722 since 2007.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster focused new attention on the hazards of offshore oil drilling and production. Friday’s accident brought memories of the 2010 explosion roaring back for residents along the Gulf Coast and stoked political posturing in the nation’s capital, 1,000 miles away.

Republican lawmakers had a muted reaction. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter offered prayers for “those affected and their families.”

“We’ll certainly have to figure out exactly what happened to take full precautions for the future,” Vitter said.

Congressional aides were already anticipating investigations into what went wrong at the Black Elk platform, given previous episodes at the company’s Gulf facilities. A crane accident was reported by the safety bureau at one of the company’s facilities in 2012, and in February 2011, a government investigation revealed that an improperly enclosed rechargeable battery caused a fire on a Black Elk platforms.

The incident also could spur fresh calls on Capitol Hill for legislation to tighten the safety of offshore drilling and production. Although the Deepwater Horizon disaster spurred a major overhaul of the government agencies that oversee offshore drilling, as well as new standards for the design of offshore wells, no substantive change has passed Congress and been signed into law.

BP on Thursday agreed to pay $4 billion to settle criminal charges stemming from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.