(USA TODAY) - An off-shore oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded early Thursday, igniting a raging fire and sending its crew of 13 scrambling into the water.
A mile-long plume with a width of about 100 feet was reported by the rig's owner, Mariner Energy of Houston. However, Coast Guard Cmdr. Cheri Ben-Iesau said its crews were unable to confirm any oil sheen.
An oil industry vessel that was nearby plucked the crewmembers out of the water and brought them to a nearby platform, Coast Guard Petty Officer Thomas Blue said. One of the workers may have suffered a minor injury, Blue said.
The crew had donned brightly colored survival gear known as "Gumby suits" that helped them float and made them more visible.
The explosion and rescue were reminiscent of the April 20 explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig, which was triggered by a blowout from a newly drilled oil reservoir. The resulting oil spill lasted nearly three months and became the nation's worst off-shore environmental disaster in history. Eleven workers died in that blast.
However, the platform was not a rig like the Deepwater Horizon. The platform was in water about 340 feet deep; the Deepwater Horizon rig had drilled in water about 5,000 feet deep. Platforms are usually brought in after wells are already drilled and sealed and are much more stable, said Andy Radford, an expert on offshore oil drilling.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Mariner officials told him there were seven active production wells on the platform, and they were shut down shortly after the fire broke out.
It was not clear whether Thursday's explosion was the result of a blowout or the extent of any leaks of crude oil, Coast Guard Commander Cheri Ben-Iesau said. The fire was extinguished.
Mariner Energy's website describes itself as "one of the leading independent oil and gas exploration and production companies in the Gulf of Mexico."
The accident prompted almost immediate action from lawmakers in Washington. The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has aggressively investigated the Deepwater Horizon spill, demanded that Mariner Energy brief the committee on what happened by Sept. 10. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., one of three lawmakers who signed the letter from the committee, issued a statement raising concerns about off-shore drilling.
"This explosion highlights the significant risks associated with offshore drilling, and that much is left to be done to keep America's workers and waters safe from those risks," Markey said.
In the Gulf region, meanwhile, local officials fretted that the latest accident would create pressure on the government not to lift the moratorium on deepwater drilling. Many local officials and businesses believe that the moratorium has hurt the local economy.
Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon was in a meeting with more than 100 city employees Thursday morning, explaining how the city's finances had suffered under the earlier oil spill, when he got word of the rig explosion. He relayed the news to his staffers, who let out an audible groan.
"We all got a very sick feeling in our stomach as we heard this," said Kennon, whose beaches and economy have been battered. "We were all sitting on edge."
Kennon insisted that the latest incident shouldn't prolong the moratorium. The regional economy has suffered enough since the moratorium was enacted, Kennon said. The moratorium on deepwater drilling is scheduled to expire Nov. 30.
The explosion was reported at 9:19 a.m. local time by another nearby rig. The blast occurred 92 miles south of Vermilion Bay, La., which is west of New Orleans and the Mississippi River Delta. It is also about 200 miles west of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The rescue was aided by decent weather, and Coast Guard helicopters had been able to locate the workers relatively quickly, Ben-Iesau said. Seven helicopters, two airplanes and four boats were dispatched to the site.
The situation appears to be very different than the one that hit BP, said Philip Weiss, an analyst at Argus Research. The rig was working in shallow water, and there are no signs yet of any spill. Still, he said offshore critics may still use it to argue against offshore drilling. Within minutes of the first reports of the explosion, that was happening.
"This is one other piece of evidence that demonstates the human and enviroment risks of our appetite for offshore oil," said Susan Farady, director of the Marine Affairs Institute at Roger Williams University School of Law. She said there's been more than 800 offshore explosions and fires in the Gulf since 2001 and 55 deaths.
Others say Mariner's incident further underscores the need for the government's six-month moratorium on deepwater exploration, which is due to lift by December, but which has shutdown deepwater exploration in the Gulf, and much of the shallow water operations, too, since April.
"It's another reminder that drilling accidents happen all too frequently," said Oceana senior campaign director Jacqueline Savitz.
Mariner's safety record in the Gulf, based on federal fines, has been largely unnoteworthy. Last year, it was fined $55,000 for two incidents in the Gulf of Mexico, records from the former Minerals Management Service indicate. In one, it was fined $20,000 because a helicopter platform was taken out of service due to a fire. In another, it was fined $35,000 after an inspector cited it for lacking adequate contingency plans for an operation.