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Offshore oil and gas accidents, deaths spike amid regulatory rollbacks

 3 min to read |

While President Donald Trump’s administration was working to relax offshore drilling regulations, there was a spike in offshore accidents and a decrease in safety inspections, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement — the federal agency tasked with regulating offshore drilling — has not yet released a tally of offshore incident statistics for 2019. But the Center for American Progress dug through the agency’s budget documents to find the number of reported injuries per hour worked on oil and gas facilities on the federal Outer Continental Shelf.

The center found that the rate of injuries increased by 21% in 2018 and 2019 compared with the previous two-year period of 2016-17. The data include injuries that require medical treatment beyond first aid. They exclude injuries stemming from natural causes or illness or that are self-inflicted, according to the budget documents.

“At worst, this is an unraveling of safety gains made after Deepwater Horizon,” the catastrophic BP spill of 2010, said Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at American Progress.

Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported that BSEE Director Scott Angelle — a former Louisiana state official and 2015 gubernatorial candidate — asked his staff to make changes to the Well Control Rule, a new protocol imposed after the 2010 disaster aimed at reducing the likelihood of a recurrence.

Angelle’s changes were meant to cut down on the cost of compliance for the energy industry, and he made them despite advice from BSEE engineers that the changes were unsafe.

The rate of offshore injuries was trending downward between 2015 and 2017. But there was a sharp uptick in accidents in 2018. The injury rate is calculated based on the number of injuries per 200,000 hours worked by operators and contractors during production, construction and drilling operations on the Outer Continental Shelf, including in the Gulf of Mexico.

While there were fewer accidents in 2019 than in 2018, the incidents in 2019 may have been more serious. In February, BSEE reported there was one fatality in 2018. While the agency has not released the number of fatalities in 2019, media reports indicate there were at least nine offshore oil worker deaths, according to an analysis by The Times-Picayune | The Advocate. That would mean at least 8% of the injuries reported in 2019 were fatalities.

Last March, a helicopter destined for an offshore platform crashed near Galliano. A pilot and a Houma-area oilfield worker were killed.

In April, an Abbeville man fell off a platform in the Gulf of Mexico. A 24-hour search ensued, but he was never found.

In May and June, four people died after falling from three different offshore platform decks. BSEE sent out a safety alert in early June after the first two deaths.

In December, Panther Helicopters Inc., based in Belle Chasse, reported that one of its helicopters did not reach its destination, an offshore platform. A search for the two people on board failed to find them.

The number of offshore worker fatalities in 2019 is more than for the previous five years combined. From 2014 to 2017, the BSEE reported one fatality in each fiscal year.

“If this pattern of tragedies and accidents isn’t a wake-up call to Director Angelle and the Interior Department, I don’t know what is,” Lee-Ashley said. “By weakening safety rules and cutting back on enforcement, the Trump administration is gambling with people’s lives and with the health of the Gulf Coast. It’s reckless, wrong, and there needs to be an immediate reckoning.”

In 2017, Trump issued an executive order directing the BSEE to reexamine the Well Control Rule. The order also directed the bureau to find ways to encourage energy exploration and production on the Outer Continental Shelf — an area that extends more than 200 miles offshore — and to reduce unnecessary regulation without sacrificing safety or environmental protection.

Among the changes to the Well Control Rule were the removal of certain requirements for real-time monitoring of offshore operations by onshore engineers; an extension of the date by which blowout preventers must comply with certain requirements; and an avenue for companies to more easily obtain waivers from meeting the minimum “safe drilling margin,” a rule designed to reduce the risk of sudden changes in well pressure that could cause a blowout. The changes went into effect in September 2018 and May 2019.

In addition to a recent increase in offshore injuries, the Center for American Progress found a decrease in the number of trips to offshore facilities for inspections and a decline in enforcement actions against offshore oil and gas operators.

BSEE conducted nearly 2,000 fewer visits to offshore facilities for inspections between 2017 and 2019 than in the previous three-year period, according to agency data, a decline of 13%. Over the same time period, enforcement actions against offshore oil and gas operators dropped by 38%.

The BSEE responded to the American Progress findings by saying that while the number of inspection visits has decreased, the number of inspections per visit has increased. A drop in the number of visits to facilities can, in part, be explained by a decrease in the number of active offshore facilities, according to the agency.

“BSEE views an increase in total inspections conducted coupled with a decrease in enforcement actions within a specified time frame, which is what occurred in 2017 and 2018, as an increase in compliance,” said BSEE spokeswoman Karla Marshall.

The BSEE expects to release the incident statistics for 2019 by the end of March, Marshall said.

The Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association declined to answer questions for this story, instead issuing a prepared statement.

“The safety of our operations, our workers and our community is a top priority for Louisiana’s oil and natural gas industry, and thanks to new initiatives and technologies our offshore energy industry has never been safer or stronger,” said the statement from association President Tyler Gray.

It added: “Industry standards, modern technology, innovation and experience working under the oversight of state and federal officials have made offshore development safer than it has ever been — and continuously becoming safer because technologies are ever-improving.”

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