The Dangers Of Offshore Drilling Operations: Overrated or Not?
There isn’t a job on the planet that doesn’t come with some sort of risk. However, some occupations seem to attract mishaps as a politician attracts scandals.
Take offshore oil and gas drilling. On Sept 11, 2015, the Houston Chronicle reported the two-day fire that engulfed a drilling rig operated by two Houston companies (Hercules Offshore and Walters Oil & Gas) in 2013 was caused by human mistakes. The workers were lucky – all 44 could be evacuated without any loss of life.
However, many others over the years weren’t so fortunate.
The CDC (Center for Disease Control) reports that from “2003–2010, the U.S. oil and gas extraction industry (onshore and offshore, combined) had a collective fatality rate seven times higher than for all U.S. workers (27.1 versus 3.8 deaths per 100,000 workers).”
This equates to 128 total fatalities in activities related solely to offshore oil and gas operations. The average age of those killed? Just over 41 years old. These fatalities occurred despite a 63% decrease in the number of active offshore drilling rigs during the same period.
Number and percentage of fatal injuries among workers involved in offshore oil and gas operations, by event — United States, 2003–2010
|Water vehicle events||16||(12.5)|
|Contact with objects and equipment||21||(16.4)|
|Fires and explosions||17||(13.3)|
|Exposure to harmful substances/environments||16||(12.5)|
|Other event types||9||(7.0)|
|Source: U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.
* All involved helicopters.
However, what makes working on these huge, offshore platforms so risky?
Trying to Mix Oil and Water
First off, the platforms themselves are built miles from the shoreline – often in hostile seas. When bad weather happens – and it happens a lot – the only recourse is to hunker down and wait it out. During severe storms, any rescue operations just have to wait until the weather calms down.
Next is the sheer complexity of these platforms and the machinery involved. As drilling operations get further out to sea, extraction operations get increasingly deeper and deeper. This means breaking new ground and inventing new methods for getting those pipes into the oil producing strata.
It isn’t just a matter of adding more pipes. At extreme drilling depths, the very physics of drilling changes. Pressures and temperatures are greatly increased, the composition of earth mantle layers is different, and what works at 10,000 feet can break down at depths more than three times that distance. Just to get to the ocean floor may mean drilling down a mile before you hit bottom.
As the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) puts it “with deeper drilling depths comes increased danger, including higher risks of accidents, spills and fires.”
PLUGGING UNDERWATER GUSHERS MADE MORE DIFFICULT
Plugging wells is one such example. The pressures inside the dome and pipes are such that the “mud” used to seal the well may not be sufficient to do the job. Water may freeze inside the containment dome due to the extremely cold ocean temperatures. Sand and salt can be forced into the pipes, eating away bits of metal. Automatic containment valves and blowout preventers may malfunction, fail or be insufficient to hold back the increased pressure. And when something blows, it blows in a big way.
That’s what happened to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in 2010. Drilling to a depth of 35,055 feet (more than six and a half miles down) the rig exploded when “a flawed well plan did not include enough cement between the 7-inch production casing and the 9 7/8-inch protection casing.” (The Oil Drum, May 22, 2010.)
The blowout preventer failed, and the rest was history.
11 lives were lost and incalculable damage done to the Gulf’s eco-system when over 134 million gallons of raw crude went spewing into the area.
However, the industry is now pushing the envelope even further, exploring a so-called “golden zone” of reserves around 20,000 feet (3.8 miles) beneath the sea floor, with drilling equipment first passing through a 10,000-foot thick corrosive layer of ancient salt beds.
As Matthew Franchek, director of the University of Houston’s subsea engineering graduate program so aptly puts it: “It’s not rocket science. Oh, no, it’s much, much more complicated.”
The Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement indicates that since the Deepwater disaster, 22 “well losses” (where well control is lost) have been reported.
As long as the economy runs on oil and gas, there are going to be offshore drilling rigs – and accidents. Hopefully none will be like the Deepwater catastrophe of 2010.
TERRY BRYANT LAW FIRM IN HOUSTON
If a member of your family has been involved in a work-related or possible work-related fatal accident involving offshore oil & gas drilling operations, you should consider consulting with an attorney specializing in employee rights and wrongful death litigation. Terry Bryant in Houston has been an advocate for helping Texas residents for over 30 years in achieving just compensation and justice for their rightful legal claims.