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Systemic issues compromise worker safety on oil rigs

18th May 2011   ·   0 Comments

By Zoe Sullivan
The Louisiana Weekly Contributing Writer

Just over a year ago, a violent explosion ripped apart the Deep­water Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, unleashing what was to be the largest oil spill in U.S. history. 11 men died in that explosion and 16 were injured. While there has been much discussion of moratoriums and the country’s thirst for oil, has the debate about drilling done anything to protect the people who work on rigs? For the most part, the answer seems to be no.

The Minerals Management Ser­vice, the agency that was charged with supervising ocean drilling when the Macondo well disaster happened, was re-organized into three separate bureaus, including the Bureau of Ocean Energy Manage­ment, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE). The latter now handles drilling permits and safety enforcement. While incident reports are posted on the organization’s web site to allow the public some insight into the status of conditions on rigs, BOEMRE refused to respond to requests for an interview on the changes wrought since last year’s catastrophe. Similarly, BP and Transocean, the rig operator and owner, respectively, declined interview requests.

Prof. Robert Bea works at the University of California, Berkeley, at the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management. He organized the Deepwater Horizon Study Group, which produced an extensive report on the technical and human factors that led to the Macondo disaster. The Group’s second progress report, issued in July, 2010, stated:

“…these failures (to contain, control, mitigate, plan, and clean-up) appear to be deeply rooted in a multi-decade history of organizational malfunction and shortsightedness. There were multiple opportunities to properly assess the livelihood and consequences of organizational decisions (i.e., Risk Assessment and Management) that were ostensibly driven by the management’s desire to “close the competitive gap” and improve bottom-line performance. Conse­quently, although there were multiple chances to do the right things in the right ways at the right times, management’s perspective failed to recognize and accept its own fallibilities despite a record of recent accidents in the U.S. and a series of promises to change BP’s safety culture.”

Bea told The Louisiana Weekly that a problem with much of the discussion and current attempts at reform is that they focus on the oil industry as a whole instead of the real problem area. According to Bea, deepwater drilling conditions represent a sort of “new domain” for the oil industry. The amount of oil found in deepwater wells like the Macondo, he says, rivals that of top-producing wells in the Middle East. The Macondo well was expelling 50-60,000 barrels of oil a day, Bea said. This, compared with the hundreds of daily barrels generally produced in shallow water, makes the importance of managing the wells safely several orders of magnitude larger.

Added to the risks involved with handling such large quantities of oil, come the difficulties of drilling several thousand feet below the surface of the ocean, without having the rig attached to the sea floor. Then there is the depth of the well itself to add to the equation. Bea compared the situation to the sort of leap that the power industry made when it began to build nuclear power plants, which also have catastrophic consequences in the event of failure.

“The 11 men who tragically who gave their lives that night on the Deepwater Horizon rig actually were not victims of worker safety, they were victims of a lack of system safety work.” Bea said. “There are dramatic differences in those two things. System safety means organizational cultures, staffing of organizations and so-forth must be appropriate to defend against ex­tremely-high-consequence accidents.

“These people don’t have any more resources than they did before this mess started,” Bea said of BOEMRE and other regulatory agencies.

In the current fiscal climate, arguing for more and better paid federal employees to effectively monitor the oil industry may be a tough sell, even though the Macondo well wasn’t capped until mid-July, nearly four months after the initial blow out. That said, three bills introduced by Washington Con­gress Member “Doc” Hastings cleared the House Natural Re­sources Committee last week and can now be debated by the full House.

Joe Newman of the Project on Government Oversight decried the progress these three bills are making as “mind boggling” given the short time elapsed since the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Ac­cording to Newman, the bills in­corporate none of the reforms suggested by the National Oil Spill Commission’s report, which was released in January. They would, however, mandate that the federal government “begin selling new leases in the Gulf of Mexico and off of the Atlantic Coast” and restrict the time period that regulators have to review permits to 60 days.

Bea also criticized the bills, saying: “These bills finding their way through Congress are not addressing [the] system safety challenges.’

One bill that incorporates some of the Oil Spill Commission’s recommendations was introduced by Democratic Congress Member Ed Markey of Massachusetts. Without costing taxpayers a dime, Markey’s bill would divert $50 million per year in oil and gas royalty payments that are currently subsidizing deepwater drilling technology. These funds would be directed to a grant program focused on developing technology to stop or prevent spills from offshore drilling. Other components of the bill include strengthening standards for well design and blowout preventers and the removal of the liability cap for damages. Likely due to the intensely partisan climate in Washington, however, Markey’s bill has not made it out of its committee.

After approving a lease in March, the Bureau said the new permit “demonstrates industry’s ability to meet and satisfy the enhanced safety requirements associated with deepwater drilling.” While these figures may come as a surprise, BOEMRE’s web site says that as of April 19, the agency has approved 53 deepwater permits, but 19 of these require further action to meet the agency’s new safety standards.

Chris Jones, whose brother, Gordon, was killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion, expressed his frustration with the progress on safety measures. “They need to make changes to worker safety to make sure that these people aren’t jeopardizing their lives to go out and try and provide for their families before they let them go out and do it again.” Jones and his father are both attorneys. They have also been pushing for changes to the Death on the High Seas Act, the law that governs recourse for the families of those killed in federal waters. The Act very strictly limits the damages that families can claim when a family member dies at sea.

“It’s unfair and it only allows for the recovery of his future lost wages, minus what he would have consumed, minus what he would have paid in taxes. And that is a finite number. That federal law is the only way that Michelle and the boys can ever recover anything. Essentially says that Gordon was a paycheck, that he was not a father, that he was not a loving husband…”

This story originally published in the April 25, 2011 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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