Gulf Oil Spill's Lessons Haven't Been Learned Yet

Lessons of the Gulf Oil Spill Haven't Been Learned
Lessons of the Gulf Oil Spill Haven't Been Learned

No one died in the second major Gulf of Mexico oil rig mishap this year, an incident that has had far less impact than the first. The fire aboard the Mariner Energy (ME) oil platform 80 miles south of Vermilion Bay, La., at first appeared to be mirroring the BP (BP) disaster, but soon, it was being cast as a win.

"These guys had the presence of mind, used their training to get into those gumby suits before they entered the water," said Coast Guard spokesman Chief Petty Officer John Edwards told the press about the 13 people aboard the rig, who were all found safe. "It speaks volumes to safety training and the importance of it, because beyond getting off the rig, there's all the hazards of the water such as hypothermia and things of that nature."

A week later, still there was no news on what caused the fire. Though the crew on board said there was an explosion, Mariner spokesman Patrick Cassidy has told press that it was "it wasn't a blowout, it's not an explosion" -- and initial reports of a mile-long oil sheen have since been retracted by both Mariner and the Coast Guard. The fire differed from the one on Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig for many reasons: Most importantly, it was unconnected to any failures in drilling or pumping equipment. On established oil platforms, the holes have already been drilled, and the risk of the great variability in pressure that can lead to a blowout is minuscule.

News of the environmental and economic damage caused by the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill is still fresh in the minds of Americans -- and it keeps on coming. "Up to 90% of oysters dead in Mississippi reef sample," reads a headline in Mississippi's Sun-Herald. "BP says it has learned from oil spill," reads the Houston Chronicle. The subhead: "But its report stops short from acknowledging any mistakes."

No Real Change on Oil Rig Safety

Still, other than the admirable training the platform workers received that allowed then to survive the fire in their gumby suits, -- floating survival gear -- there's no evidence that any industry-wide preventative measures have been put in place in response to the BP oil spill. The Chronicle article points out that Michael Bromwich, head of the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement "has said regulators aren't convinced the industry would do any better than BP in the event of another spill."

While last week's event didn't cause a significant oil spill (and a leak from that well would have been far easier to plug), it should be viewed both as a clear indication that fires on oil drilling rigs and production platforms are a part of the business, and that safety violations are rarely treated as serious, production-halting scenarios. It's well-documented that BP was able to drill in the Gulf despite having a record of numerous safety violations across the company, and specifically at the risky Deepwater project. Neither a change in the name of the governmental body that regulates the oil industry, nor the firing of its director, are immediately addressing the huge number of oil platforms and drilling rigs currently operating in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Precisely how huge that number is remains unclear. This YouTube video shows the proliferation of oil rigs between 1942 and 2005: The NOAA has recorded 3,858 active platforms in the Gulf, most of them in the "Central Planning Area," where both of the recent events occurred. Of those, 121 are active drilling rigs, and 717 are manned production platforms. In addition to the active platforms, there are several hundred decommissioned oil rigs, many of which have been turned into artificial reefs, which marine scientists believe are beneficial to sea life. Other sources say the number of active platforms is about 4,500, and 4,000 of these are said to be "due to be decommissioned in the next century." Those due-to-be decommissioned rigs are unmanned and low-priority, thanks to the expense of taking them apart.

Inspections Targeted the Highest Risk Sites

With somewhere around 4,000 possible sites for environmental disasters, 121 of them quite risky, one obvious measure would be to perform safety checks on all of them. And indeed, that very plan was ordered at the end of April 2010 by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar. On April 30, a government press release stated, "MMS is conducting immediate inspections of all 30 deepwater drilling rigs and 47 deepwater production platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. This operation is underway and consists of targeted inspections ensuring that tests of BOP (blowout preventer) stacks have been completed, related records are available for inspection, and that emergency well control exercises are taking place." Two rigs were found to be in noncompliance. According to the government, the violations were corrected.

As knee-jerk reactions go, that one may have seemed extreme to those whose fear is of exploding budget deficits, but the recent shallow-water rig fire indicates that perhaps the new inspection regimen didn't go far enough. Each and every one of the 4,000-plus active oil rigs creates some risk to human life, the environment, or both. Safety notices issued by the Department of the Interior don't seem to have helped. Mariner has a history of safety violations, and has paid $65,000 in fines this year alone.

Actually levying significant numbers of fines against the oil companies is a recent innovation: The Houston Chronicle revealed in June that, while 200 violations were uncovered by MMS officials at nearly every major oil company operating in the Gulf of Mexico, only 16 had resulted in fines. Nonetheless, increasing fines is a symbolic change that's clearly not an effective way to get oil companies to improve their safety policies. This latest incident, which might not have been newsworthy at all before April, occurred despite extremely serious allegations made by crew members of another rig at Mariner's predecessor company, Forest Oil. That crew was so upset about the safety violations, they left the rig, and their supervisor died when the failure they predicted occurred.

"Poor Judgment and Decision Making By the Deceased"

The warning about the Forest Oil situation was sadly prophetic. Posted in June, it detailed serious safety violations of a number of companies still operating in the Gulf of Mexico today, and noted how likely it was that another disaster was imminent. "Kicks from natural gas [which caused the 2006 death] happen frequently, but are generally stopped or controlled before catastrophe strikes ... about 50 times a year in the Gulf. So when you add up year after year, and then throw in companies having no blowouts getting a bit complacent and greedy and sloppy, you basically guarantee yourselves a disaster eventually."

While a complete moratorium on all underwater oil production is the only way to eliminate the risk, there is another solution: to address the "cowboy" culture that makes accidents a virtual guarantee. The official report of Forest Oil listed "poor judgment and decision making by the deceased." In the end, it was determined he "exceeded his authority and made operational decisions ... without input from management."

When line supervisors regularly exceed their authority and use poor judgment to make operational decisions, that's not the fault of the line supervisors, but of the culture of the industry as a whole. The mindset of the oil business needs to change, and change fast, so that oil rigs stop being viewed as rugged outposts of fierce individualism in the pursuit of big money -- the American Dream -- but rather as the real risks to human lives and livelihoods that they are -- potential American Nightmares.