NEW ORLEANS—A massive fire on an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico left 11 workers missing and cast a pall over an offshore drilling boom that stands to dramatically lift U.S. energy output.
Rescuers scoured the Gulf for the unaccounted workers late Wednesday as firefighters struggled to quench a towering fire that forced all aboard to flee.
The blaze on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, which broke out around 10 p.m. central Tuesday night, thrust a geyser of flames and smoke into the sky about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana. Seventeen people were injured, three critically, rescue officials said.
The rig is operated for oil giant BP PLC by drilling contractor Transocean Ltd., which said the search for the cause of the fire would begin after the missing had been accounted for. But Transocean said one possibility that might explain the size and ferocity of the blaze is a blow-out, an uncontrolled burst of oil and natural gas from the well.
Some industry analysts said they feared the accident might temporarily damp the pace of oil development in the deepest reaches of the Gulf, which has become a significant exploration hotspot for international oil companies seeking new sources of petroleum. The industry is booming, and has been challenged by a tight supply of rigs and skilled workers.
The accident comes at a sensitive time politically for the industry. President Obama late last month proposed allowing drilling in new areas of the eastern Gulf of Mexico and off the southern Atlantic coast, where it was banned. Supporters argue the industry has become much safer. The Transocean fire could be an untimely reminder of risks.
"Is there a domino effect from this?" asked Arun Jayaram, a Credit Suisse analyst. "It seems like there would be some collateral damage."