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Friday, 16 March, 2001, 20:43 GMT
Dangers of oil extraction
Piper Alpha disaster, July 1988
The 1988 Piper Alpha disaster led to improved safety
By Corinne Podger

The explosions at the world's largest oil rig, and the fears of a major oil spill off the coast of Brazil, have highlighted the dangers of extracting oil from deep sea reserves.

Petrobras oil rig
Oil spills from rigs are much bigger than from tankers
As the world's land-based and shallow-water oil reserves have been tapped and exploited, the search for fresh reserves has identified many new sites beneath the ocean floor.

Deep sea rigs have become a major source of oil, and the world's oceans are now home to thousands of these structures.

Some are solidly anchored to the seabed; others float on the surface, connected by a thick pipe like an umbilical cord to the ocean floor and the oil below.

Peppered with accidents

Rig technology has developed now to the point where it is possible to drill several kilometres beneath the sea bed.

But the rig industry's history has been peppered with accidents, and the spills involved can be many times the size of a tanker accident.

In 1979 nearly a 150 million gallons of oil poured into the sea off the Mexican coast when a platform blew out. That is 10 times the size of the oil spill from the 1989 Exxon Valdese tanker disaster, off the coast of Alaska.

Tanker ships which collect the oil brought up by the rigs have been known to crash into them, and spills can also happen while oil is being transferred from rig to tanker.

While the oil giants like Brazil's Petrobras are working to improve the technology, extracting oil from the sea bed continues to be a difficult and dangerous job.

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See also:

16 Mar 01 | Americas
Brazil fears oil disaster
16 Mar 01 | Americas
Blasts cripple Brazilian oil rig
23 Jan 01 | Americas
Spotlight on oil transport risks
17 Feb 01 | Americas
Oil spill clear-up in Brazil
20 Jan 00 | Americas
Brazil oil giant attacked over leak
01 Aug 00 | Americas
Brazil hit by new toxic spill
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