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Weekly Mulch: Vermilion 380 explosion reignites drilling fears

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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 the 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 bymembers of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Mulch for a complete list of articles on environmental issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, health care and immigration issues, check out The AuditThe Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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