The nearly forgotten Mariner explosion is just as bad as the BP oil spill

By Shelley DuBois, reporter

FORTUNE -- It's never a good time for an oil rig to blow up in the Gulf of Mexico, but Mariner Energy's Vermillion 380 platform couldn't have gone off at a worse time. The government and the media were already scrutinizing offshore drill production in an unprecedented way. Thirteen unlucky workers were ejected off of Vermillion into the water last week. And Mariner (ME) inadvertently became the latest part of a national political debate about the safety of offshore drilling.

But given that the explosion, according to reports, hasn't resulted oil leak, it would be surprising if the event had much of a political impact, even if it should. Oil spills are visual disasters that the public tends to forget once the crude is dispersed.

In Mariner's case, no oil has spilled, except for a reported oil-sheen right after the Vermillion 380 explosion, which seems to have dissipated. The rig was producing oil when the accident happened, but all of its seven wells were shut off during the explosion. None of the rig workers died, and it's unlikely that the government will seek any significant financial compensation from Mariner.

And if there had been a disaster, Mariner wouldn't have been able to pony up anyway. It's a mid-size oil and gas exploration and production company that pulled in $943 million in revenue last year and $210.8 million in the second quarter of 2010. It could hardly set up a $20 billion BP-style escrow fund to pay damages. Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer administering the BP claims process, probably wouldn't leave his office for the amount of money Mariner could've set aside if the worst had happened.

Another oil company, Apache (APA, Fortune 500), made a $3.9 billion bid for Mariner in April before the BP (BP) spill on the 20th. Mariner's operations would further strengthen Apache's presence in the offshore drilling game. There have been no reports that the deal is jeopardized by Mariner's rig explosion. And Mariner has said that its production numbers won't be affected either.

The only way that the accident could have a major impact on the company is if the government uses it as a justification to tighten the moratorium on offshore drilling in the gulf, or to extend it to include rigs in shallow water. With top administration officials largely silent on Mariner, that's not likely to happen.

Yet Mariner already felt under fire, with a senior executive saying, the day before the explosion, that "this administration is trying to break us. The moratorium they imposed is going to be a financial disaster for the gulf coast, gulf coast employees and gulf coast residents." Several media outlets picked up on the irony of the statement the day of the blast.

Perhaps the largest figure to take note of the blast is Representative Henry Waxman, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, who has requested a briefing of the incident from Mariner by September 10, and is using the incident as an example of why the moratorium should hold.

The Obama administration has said the moratorium is a placeholder to restructure safety regulations for offshore rigs, to prevent another major environmental disaster like the BP spill. But preventing accidents like the Mariner explosion would require a much more comprehensive restructuring of safety standards -- both offshore and onshore.

There were 650-800 serious incidents involving oil operations in the Gulf last year that didn't garner much attention because the sector wasn't under public scrutiny until the BP spill. The Houston Chronicle reported that Mariner Energy itself has had 12 safety incidents in the Gulf since 2006. But that's not a bad safety record, relative to the industry.

Are spills helping the regulators get stronger, or the companies?

The oil industry is making the argument that jobs in the energy sector and energy itself is key to American national security. In fact, the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's lobbying group, held an energy jobs rally in Ohio yesterday, which drew 400 people. The Mariner explosion probably won't change their message.

Also, Apache, which is set to buy Mariner, benefited from BP's oil spill. When the Macondo well exploded, BP sold some of its assets to Apache to free up some cash. Analysts were surprised when investors didn't jump on Apache stocks after the company beefed up its portfolio. "How many times are you going to have a Macondo?" asked one analyst in Platts.

All in all, the energy industry seems to be turning crisis into an opportunity to create value and push back hard on regulatory reform, with Macondo and now Mariner.

Improved safety regulations for industries with high impact, low probability events like oil spills usually come well after the bang. The government could try to use the rapidly receding Mariner event as another stick with which to justify a complete regulatory overhaul for a dangerous industry, making the case that just because there wasn't a big spill doesn't mean offshore explosions are optimal outcomes on oil rigs. So far, they're not. But if they don't seize the moment, it's unlikely that industry itself will change much about how things are done on those needed but dangerous platforms in the middle of the sea. To top of page