Excerpt: Crude, Slick and Deadly by Justin Williams

Offshore Platforms' Risky Business

Offshore infrastructures allow the industry to access some of the world’s largest hydrocarbon reserves, but this comes at a cost. Plagued by both environmental and technological hazards, offshore platforms involve harsh working conditions and have a gruesome history of deadly accidents. Fires, explosions, and oil spills are not uncommon at offshore rigs, often involving fatalities and devastating consequences for the environment.

Common Causes of Accidents at Offshore Drilling Platforms  

  • Outdated equipment and insufficient testing
  • Operations involving ignition sources close to flammable substances
  • Malfunctioning safety alarms
  • Lack of safety training
  • Lack of safety barriers to prevent debris from the explosion from harming workers
  • Insufficiently trained personnel
  • Inadequate maintenance of pipes and hoses
  • Inadequate equipment maintenance
  • Improper fuel storage
  • Focus on profits above safety
  • Faulty ventilation systems
  • Faulty electrical installations
  • Failure to adhere to safety regulations
  • Defective safety systems
  • Corrosion
  • Blow Out Preventer (BOP) system failures

The first case I worked on when I started practicing law in 1983 involved a minor loss of gas on a Marathon platform. This should have caused only minor injuries and losses. The case was known as the “Gulf Leak Can” or “East Cameron Block 322,” and it made headlines all over the world. The offshore platform was fed by a number of gas pipelines, and there was an underwater, remotely operated control valve that the operators had failed to install. This was shocking, considering that the valve was missing from a pipeline that basically controlled gas from about 18 different platforms in the Gulf.  

When the gas leaked and a fire started, workers were unable to isolate those 18 lines, and the whole platform went up in flames. Three people were killed and 16 were injured. The operator faced $200 million in property damage, another $500 to $750 million in lost gas, and untold pollution. They also had to pay $5 million each to the families of the three fatal victims, and about a million each to all the injured people.

These types of horrendous accidents are often caused by what oil companies consider minor deviations from safety regulations. The Deepwater Horizon, for instance, had numerous small safety irregularities. These minor deviations, like failing to replace a packer seal, had tragic consequences. If they had replaced the seal, they could have possibly isolated the gas and prevented numerous deaths, massive pollution in the Gulf, and astronomical losses.

It is in the oil and gas industry’s DNA to attempt to rush into production, to rush drilling and production procedures; they are perpetually in search of shortcuts. Oftentimes, these shortcuts involve overlooking safety measures and end up causing preventable fatalities, injuries, property damage, and pollution. The best way to prevent them from doing this is to teach teaching them that good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior is punished through lawsuits.

In 1982 prices, the missing subsurface valve probably cost less than $500, and it might have taken a couple of hours to have it installed. To avoid a couple of hours' worth of delay and a minimal expense, they caused literally over a billion dollars' worth of damage in 1982 dollars, probably the equivalent of $5 to $10 billion in today’s currency. Based on these numbers, this would be among the top five largest Gulf disasters to date, not too far behind the Deepwater Horizon.  

The Alvenus: A Cautionary Tale

The story repeated itself in 1984 when the Conoco tanker Alvenus ventured into Lake Charles in Cameron, Louisiana armed with an outdated nautical chart. They had 10,000 tons of heavy Venezuelan crude onboard, and Conoco had failed to replace its charts in a timely manner. In these offshore channels, the Gulf Stream currents, the tides, and the natural ebb and flow of the ocean often cause sand bars to move. Where there was a sandbar five years ago, there may be deep water today, and vice versa. In this scenario, it is crucial to regularly update nautical charts and closely monitor sonar and radar devices.  

One of the keys to safely navigating those waters is looking at the charts before you get within sonar and radar distance of, for example, a sand bar. In the case of the Alvenus, the crew had old nautical charts that Conoco had failed to replace, and there was a newly formed sand bar that was not on the outdated chart. The tanker ran aground on the sand bar, ripped a hole in the Alvenus, and put thousands of tons of heavy Venezuelan crude into the Gulf of Mexico. 

The oil flowed in the direction of the tide and came ashore in Galveston Island, instead of in Louisiana or to the west, the way the normal Gulfstream flows. What happened was that the oil had sunk, and the tide was going the other way underneath, close to the bottom of the ocean. The result was that a massive amount of pollution ran aground in Texas and hundreds of tons of Venezuelan crude from that spill ended up polluting U.S. beaches for many decades.

In a paper presented at the International Oil Spill Conference in 1987, two U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety officers wrote, 

“At 12:36 p.m. on July 30, 1984, the United Kingdom tank vessel Alvenus grounded with catastrophic structural failure in the Calcasieu River Bar Channel about 11 nautical miles south-southeast of Cameron, Louisiana, creating the largest oil spill from a ship ever encountered in the Gulf of Mexico... Between July 30 and August 4, 1984, the Alvenus discharged approximately 2.7 million gallons of viscous Venezuelan Merey and Pilon crude oil into international waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Attempts to contain and recover the oil at sea were rendered ineffective by rough seas and the magnitude of the spill. A well-defined 75-mile slick of oil traveled west from the Alvenus for over 100 miles, arriving on Texas beaches on August 3 and 4 between the town of Gilchrist, and San Luis Pass at the west end of Galveston Island. , , The Coast Guard and cleanup crews encountered a major problem when a large portion of the slick approached the shoreline, absorbed suspended solid particles, and sank in the nearshore surf zones at Galveston Island.”

To put things into perspective, our country has to endure possibly 100 years of pollution because an oil and gas company didn’t spend about $50 dollars to replace their nautical charts every five years or so. They were sending tankers out to sea with outdated charts. 

These are accidents that happened many years ago, but very little has changed since then in my experience. There are still many simple safety measures that these companies fail to take that keep causing injuries, deaths, environmental catastrophes, and massive financial losses.  

Offshore platform operations involve very harsh work conditions where the “human factor” of safety awareness is key. According to Dr. Marios Patsoules of Hellenic Petroleum, an experienced geologist and safety analyst, it is understandable that companies that have invested millions of dollars will try to cut corners but “a country/state responsible for providing licenses for offshore oil and gas exploration and production has absolutely no excuse to not contribute at equal proportions in the planning and control of an offshore project.” 

Patsoules has highlighted the relative success of some European countries in keeping oil and gas companies in check. In the U.S., however, and especially over the last few years, we have had a very different culture when it comes to oversight, and we must continue to rely on lawsuits to advance legislation and foster changes in the industry’s safety culture.

Putting the BP Oil Spill Behind?

In March 2020, the Center for American Progress published a report analyzing the administration’s regulatory rollback impact on the oil and gas industry’s fatality rate. Although these numbers are not yet available from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), the liberal think tank reviewed the Bureau’s public records and extracted information about offshore incidents that occurred during 2019.  

According to the researchers’ findings, the rate of serious injuries on offshore platforms increased by 21 percent in the 2018-2019 period. This is no surprise considering the BSEE director’s move to diminish requirements imposed by the Well Control Rule, a protocol that was implemented in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. 

Although BSEE experts informed Director Scott Angelle that the move was ill-advised and would make offshore platforms unsafe, Angelle went ahead with the measure. We are now seeing the results. 

Since the protocol was implemented, we had observed a decline in offshore platform injuries, up to 2017. But that all changed in 2018. There was a spike in accidents causing injuries that required medical assistance beyond first aid. 

Changes to the Well Control Rule, introduced between 2018 and 2019, included getting rid of certain real-time monitoring requirements, a laxer deadline for blowout preventer compliance, and the introduction of new options for companies to obtain safe drilling margin waivers, a measure that may increase the chance of blowouts.  

Angelle’s aim was clear: to reduce the cost of compliance for offshore platform operators. There is nothing the industry loves more. And nothing workers should be more worried about. According to some journalists’ estimates, 8 percent of the offshore injuries reported in 2019 may have resulted in fatalities. In fact, the rate of offshore fatalities for 2019 has surpassed that of the previous five years combined. 

Offshore fatalities reported in 2019 include: 

  • A pilot and an oilfield worker killed in a helicopter crash 
  • A man who fell off a platform in the Gulf, whose body was never found 
  • Four people who fell from offshore platform decks 
  • Two people who were on board a helicopter that was headed towards an offshore platform and was never found

According to Matt Lee-Ashley of American Progress, the administration “is gambling with people's lives and the Gulf Coast’s health. It's reckless, wrong, and there needs to be an immediate reckoning.” Considering the regulatory roll-back was accompanied by a 13 percent decline in the number of offshore facility inspections, I cannot say I disagree. 

Enforcement actions against operators of offshore facilities have also plummeted since the Well Control Rule was amended. Between 2017 and 2019, there were 38 percent fewer enforcement actions than between 2014 and 2016. These have left some of the industry’s most vulnerable workers even more at risk than they already were; working in harsh weather conditions and with little hope of ever seeing an inspector who might force their employers to comply with increasingly lax regulations. 

The Future  

The Deepwater Horizon tragedy showed us that pipe fracturing in the water can be catastrophic, but if it were to occur beneath the seafloor, we might encounter a new level of environmental disaster. Such an escape would be virtually impossible to control, the only possible ‘solution’ would be to dig a new well to relieve pressure. We know from the Horizon experience that while drilling is in progress, damage can grow exponentially.

While action prevention technology has greatly advanced, government oversight is lagging behind scientific progress. As offshore drilling booms and the current U.S. administration rolls back environmental protections, describing them as “unnecessary regulatory burdens,” it is hard to predict a safer future for offshore platform workers. 

On the other hand, in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic, as the price of crude plummets, the companies that were already cutting corners may be tempted to become even more negligent to try to stay afloat financially. 

As the industry navigates this complex scenario, we keep drilling deeper and deeper, and increasing risk. Offshore drilling in ultra-deep waters was responsible for only 15 percent of the Gulf oil production f between 2000 and 2009, but it now accounts for more than half of the fuel’s output in the region. As the University of Iowa researcher Tyler Priest once put it, “Nothing generates more free cash flow than a flowing deep water well... You have to keep finding more and more oil as older fields deplete and get plugged and abandoned.” For as long as deepwater drilling remains both hazardous and profitable, we´re going to have to be on the alert.

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