WASHINGTON – What now for the Gulf?
News of another oil rig fire in the Gulf of Mexico, so soon after the BP oil spill, has set off a wave of anxiety along the Gulf Coast and prompted calls for the government to extend its six-month ban on deepwater drilling.
Just when it seemed the Obama administration might be ready to lift the unpopular ban, the fire raises new questions about the dangers of offshore drilling, leaving the industry wondering when it can get back to work.
"Anything that casts any kind of shadow on the industry right now certainly complicates lifting the moratorium," said Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University in Texas. "It makes it difficult to continue to say that (the BP spill) is an aberration."
But while initial reports were frightening, Bullock and other experts said Thursday's platform fire is unlikely to have a lasting effect.
Unlike the April explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig — which killed 11 people and led to the largest offshore oil spill in the nation's history — the fire at the Mariner Energy Inc. platform 100 miles south of Louisiana killed no one and sent no crude gushing into the water.
"There's over 100 fires in the Gulf in a given year. Were it not for the BP incident this would receive very little coverage," Bullock said. "This could have happened in a meat factory or a paint factory or anywhere else."
Even so, environmental groups and some Democratic lawmakers rushed to denounce offshore drilling and urged the Obama administration to extend the six-month deepwater ban to shallow water as well. The current ban has shut down drilling at 33 ocean wells, but there still are more than 7,300 active leases in the Gulf of Mexico, 58 percent of them in deep waters, according to the American Petroleum Institute.
There are about 3,400 platforms operating in the Gulf, pumping about a third of America's domestic oil.
The latest fire "is another reminder that drilling accidents happen all too frequently. We cannot afford to lose any more human lives, nor can we tolerate further damage to the Gulf and its irreplaceable ocean ecosystems," said Jacqueline Savitz of the environmental group Oceana.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a leading critic of BP, said the fire highlights the risks associated with offshore drilling. Lawmakers "have a duty to ... all oil workers to make sure the oil industry's drilling practices are safe and sound," Markey said.
The Interior Department has said it is considering lifting the ban for certain categories of rigs before the scheduled Nov. 30 expiration. But after Thursday's accident the department may hesitate to act.
"At this point, based on what we know, I don't want to marry those two up," Gibbs told reporters Thursday.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Friday that the platform fire appeared to be an industrial accident.
"At this point, it doesn't seem like there was any oil that was released out so the oil pollution is not an issue, and it's not another Deepwater Horizon issue," Salazar said at a news conference in Anchorage.
Industry representatives also distinguished between the two incidents, saying that the fire did not involve drilling and occurred on a production platform where wells have already been drilled and sealed, rather than a drilling rig like the Deepwater Horizon.
Mariner Energy said there were seven active production wells on its platform, but they were shut down for maintenance shortly before the fire broke out. A crew was on the platform painting and sandblasting when the fire occurred, a company spokesman said Friday.
Lee Hunt, chief executive of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, said those urging tighter restrictions on offshore drilling were overreacting.
"These things have happened and been reported before" and generated little media attention, Hunt said.
Still, Hunt conceded that the timing of the fire was "not fortuitous," adding that he expects upcoming congressional hearings on the Mariner fire to be a "minor circus."
Hunt called the fire a "major blast" similar to one at a land-based refinery.
"As a geographical workplace, you would expect some fires. Just like you'd expect some chemical storage facilities ... will occasionally have three-alarm fires on land," he said. "They do happen."
Federal authorities have cited Mariner Energy and related entities for 10 accidents in the Gulf of Mexico over the past four years, according to safety records from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. The accidents range from platform fires to pollution spills and a blowout.
A day before the fire, the American Petroleum Institute held a "Rally for Jobs" in Houston to protest the drilling moratorium. Mariner official Barbara Dianne Hagood was among those in attendance, according to a Financial Times report.
"I have been in the oil and gas industry for 40 years, and this administration is trying to break us," she told the London-based paper. "The moratorium they imposed is going to be a financial disaster for the Gulf Coast, Gulf Coast employees and Gulf Coast residents."
Charlotte Randolph, president of the Lafourche, La., Parish and an outspoken critic of the moratorium, said the outcome of Thursday's platform fire proved that the oil and gas industry has effective safety procedures.
"The people were safely recovered. The oil did not spill. It's everything the Deepwater Horizon was not," she said.
Associated Press Writers Erica Werner in Washington, Chris Kahn in New York, Michael Kunzelman in New Orleans and Dan Joling in Anchorage contributed to this story.