Oil Rig Explodes In Gulf Of Mexico

An oil and gas production platform in the Gulf of Mexico caught fire Thursday morning, reigniting the political debate over the safety of offshore wells. The fire began near an oil storage tank on top of the platform about 80 miles south of Vermilion Bay, La., while 13 workers were painting and water-blasting, forcing them to evacuate as flames engulfed the facility, according to Mariner Energy, the platform operator. A dozen of the workers were able to don brightly colored survival gear known as "Gumby suits." Clinging together in the water for two hours, they drifted about a mile before they were rescued by the Crystal Clear, a supply vessel that rushed over from a rig about 25 miles away. The blaze was extinguished in the late afternoon. It did not appear that the fire triggered a crude oil leak like the one that occurred after the April 20 blowout of BP's Macondo well. That blowout, about 200 miles east of the Mariner platform, caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history and has forced BP to set aside billions to clean up the environmental damage and compensate gulf businesses and residents. A Coast Guard official initially said that Mariner Energy, which has a history of fires and safety violations, reported an oil sheen 100 feet wide and a mile long. But Patrick Cassidy, director of investor relations for the company, later said that automated equipment on the platform had shut down its seven producing wells and that "in an initial flyover of the facility, no oil sheen was seen on the water." Over the past week, the platform, in the Vermilion block 380, had been producing 1,400 barrels a day of crude oil and 9.2 million cubic feet a day of natural gas. Nonetheless, with the Gulf Coast still reeling from the massive BP spill, the fire brought new calls for tougher regulation just as the oil industry and the White House were hoping that public concerns would abate.