The Beacon

Safety Culture Aboard Exploded Offshore Rig: “Poor at Best”

(Photo: Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Panel Report 2013-002)

Offshore drilling remains deadly and dangerous years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill devastated the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. The picture above is from a massive explosion on an offshore drilling rig owned by Black Elk Inc., which killed three workers, injured multiple others, and created a large oily sheen on the ocean’s surface in November 2012. A new investigation from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) found:  

…the safety culture aboard the WD 32 complex at the time of the incident to be poor at best. Due to Black Elk’s failure to manage its contractors and the contractors’ collective failure to adhere to established policies, the Panel found the lack of a safety culture aboard the WD 32 complex to be a contributing cause of the explosion/fire.

While a worker stated that he smelled gas, he did not report this potential gas leakage to his supervisors and went ahead with a welding job or ‘hot work’ which ultimately triggered the explosion. BSEE noted several employees expressed a fear of losing their jobs if they complained about dangerous work conditions, which led to their silence when they noticed work conditions were unsafe.

Most of the blame lies with the incredibly poor safety record of drilling operators, particularly Black Elk Energy, which has a long history of major safety violations in the Gulf. Sadly, the Black Elk explosion is not an isolated incident. More recently, there were additional accidents in the Gulf including a natural gas platform, called Hercules 265, which erupted into flames and partially collapsed after a blowout preventer and other safety mechanisms failed. A formal investigation of this event is ongoing, but there seems to be similarities between the failures which led to Hercules Rig disaster and those that caused the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The only true way to prevent even more accidents is to stop the expansion of offshore drilling in favor of cleaner and safer energy sources, like offshore wind. In order to save lives and protect the environment, the fines for safety violations need to be raised dramatically to deter noncompliance. The daily fines (currently $40,000 per violation per day) should be on par with the associated costs of offshore drilling operations, which can be more than one million dollars per day. Also, there needs to be better whistleblower protection to avoid the fear of reprisal against workers who report unsafe or illegal activities, and more safety inspectors are needed immediately. Some of these fixes, however, will require involvement from a stagnant Congress which has not passed a single law to improve offshore drilling safety.

It’s startling to see offshore drilling safety culture defined by a government agency as ‘poor at best’ years after the lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Until these accidents stop in the Gulf, ‘drilling safety’ will remain an oxymoron. We should not allow this unsafe and environmentally damaging practice to be expanded to new places, like the East Coast. We have renewable resources off our shores that will not explode or spill, like offshore wind. It is time we move beyond dangerous drilling and transition towards a clean energy future.

Take action today and tell Congress to extend important tax credits for renweable energy, like offshore wind. 


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