Offshore oil execs fought new safety improvements before Gulf explosion

posted on:
April 28, 2010

author:
KURT NILAND

The energy industry fought federal regulators, safety advocates, and environmental activists for promoting policies that would enhance the safety of workers and reduce the risk of environmental harm before the massive Deepwater Horizon rig exploded last week and sank into the Gulf of Mexico.  

Transocean, owner of the massive Deepwater Horizon, and BP, which had contracted the rig for exploration, also violated numerous statutes and regulations established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the U.S. Coast Guard. These violations are enumerated in a lawsuit filed by Natalie Roshto, whose husband Shane is listed among the lost workers after the force of last week’s explosion blew him off the rig.

According to the lawsuit, both companies failed to provide a competent crew, failed to supervise its employees properly, and failed to provide Rushto with a safe working environment. Rushto filed her complaint in a federal court in Louisiana. Her lawsuit also names Halliburton as a defendant, alleging that before the explosion occurred, the energy giant “was engaged in cementing operations of the well and well cap and, upon information and belief, improperly and negligently performed these duties, which was a cause of the explosion.”

When the Department of the Interior’s Minerals and Management Service (MMS) proposed new rules to improve worker safety last year, Transocean and BP joined other oil magnates to aggressively fight them. MMS, which regulates offshore drilling, introduced the new rules after a study found the industry to be replete with accidents, injuries, and fatalities.

In the last nine years, 69 people have been killed and 1,349 injured in oil rig accidents just in the Gulf of Mexico. According to the MMS, there have been 858 fires and explosions in the Gulf during that same period of time.

MMS also issued 150 citations for non-compliance in production and drilling from 2001 to 2007, finding that the industry had failed to improve discernibly in the previous seven years.

Because of the offshore oil industry’s poor record, the MMS proposed that every operator be audited for safety once every three years. The federal agency estimated it would cost the oil companies about $4.6 million in start-up costs and $8 million in annual costs to maintain an adequate safety program. This new requirement would end the industry’s voluntary and self-managed safety programs that had proven to be so ineffective.

The oil industry responded with a coordinated attack on the proposed regulations. Oil industry associations and executives sent more than 100 letters to the MMS in objection. BP’s vice president for Gulf of Mexico production Richard Morrison wrote in a letter that the voluntary safety programs “have been and continue to be very successful.”

The American Petroleum Institute and the Offshore Operators Committee sent a joint letter to MMS, arguing that the voluntary programs are better because they have “enough flexibility to suit the corporate culture of each company.”

Last September, the Offshore Operators Committee created a Powerpoint presentation that asked “What do HURRICANES and New Rules Have in Common?” The question, which was superimposed on a satellite image of hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico, was answered on the next page: “Both are disruptive to Operations and are costly to Recover From.”

Another Transocean executive said the new MMS rules were nothing but an “unnecessary burden.”

Defenders of Wildlife senior policy advisor Richard Charter told the Huffington Post that he “gets calls from whistleblowers working on rigs who complain about the work conditions and the environmental damage caused by such operations.”

“This event has called attention to the fact that there is a long-standing safety problem in the offshore industry,” Charter told the Huffington Post.

BP had been paying Transocean half a million dollars per day to lease the Deepwater Horizon. With that kind of financial pressure, it’s not surprising that the big oil companies put production above safety and environmental concerns.

Unfortunately, when these offshore oil companies fail, everyone pays. The Deepwater Horizon released nearly a million gallons of diesel fuel into the Gulf waters when it sank, and the wellhead continues to leak about 42,000 gallons of crude. Already the oil has oozed its way across 2,000 square miles, killing oceangoing animals and threatening wildlife, industry, and livelihoods in all of the Gulf states.

Read the MMS proposed rules for improved safety.

Read BP objection to MMS proposed rules.

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