Calm Down People: Factchecking Thursday’s Oil Fire in the Gulf

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REUTERS/Lee Celano

After an oil and gas production platform in the Gulf of Mexico caught fire Thursday, media outlets (including us) were quick to jump to conclusions. If you were watching cable news at the time, you would have thought it was the day’s biggest story: Could this be BP, part two? Turns out, not at all. So let’s move beyond the hyperbole, and focus on what actually matters about oil production in the Gulf.

Now that the Coast Guard and media companies have had time to digest yesterday’s events, we can now see just how different yesterday’s events were from BP’s oil rig explosion. First of all, yesterday’s incident was a fire, not an explosion. Second of all, Deepwater Horizon was a rig, which drills wells, while yesterday’s Mariner Energy incident was on a platform. Platforms place pressure on the wells to keep oil flowing and sometimes collect the oil or gas itself, and are in place for years at a time.

The Mariner Energy platform does not violate a government moratorium on deepwater drilling, since no drilling took place and the platform is in shallow water. But this moratorium is really what we should follow. The moratorium is in a legal back-and-forth — and many jobs and the state of the environment hang in the balance.

In May, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a six-month ban on deepwater drilling. But a group of companies that provide equipment to the drilling industry filed suit against the government, arguing that there is no proof that current drilling poses a threat — plus, a ban on drilling would leave many people unemployed. U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman agreed and declared the moratorium invalid and unenforceable; the ruling was held on appeal.

After this, the government issued a second ban on drilling and asked the court to dismiss the previous lawsuit, since the moratorium in question had been replaced. Feldman struck down that motion yesterday because “the new moratorium covers precisely the same rigs and precisely the same deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico as did the first moratorium.” The government, which is reviewing Feldman’s decision, says the ban is necessary to improve safety procedures and protect the environment. Officials hope to keep the ban going until November, but are considering scaling back depending on information it finds about the oil industry’s practices.

It’s unclear as to how yesterday’s events may affect the legal view of the temporary drilling ban, especially since early Coast Guard reports of a sheen near the fire were erroneous. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce requested information from Mariner Energy for a Sept. 10 briefing, and though the incident has nothing to do with drilling, the platform itself was found in violation of several safety rules upon inspection this past January.