One Year After Deepwater Horizon Disaster, Rig Operator Claims 'Best Year in Safety Performance,' Gives Execs Big Bonuses
It is time to learn the lessons of the disaster: neither the technology
nor the regulation of deepwater drilling is capable of protecting
workers or the environment.
April 11, 2011 |
of the bonuses went viral and enraged the public. Within one day,
announcements that the executives were donating the bonuses to families
of the 11 men who died on the rig soon went viral as well.
the contributions are certainly welcome, they are little more than a
gesture. First, the contributions accounted for but a small fraction of
the total bonuses the executives received (approximately $250,000 out
of nearly $900,000, according to Fortune), and not a single executive turned down his or her raise.
fact that Transocean awarded the raises and bonuses is more than an
affront to the families and colleagues of the 11 men who died aboard
the rig and the millions more who have suffered as a consequence of the
210-million-barrel oil gusher. They are also a warning.
is the largest deepwater driller in the world, operating nearly half of
all rigs in more 3,000 feet of water in the Gulf of Mexico. All of the
major oil companies rely heavily upon its services. If the ongoing
fight for new offshore drilling in places like California (where I
live) is lost by opponents, Transocean will unquestionably enter these
new waters. Yet, investigations are sure to conclude that Transocean’s
operational failures are as much to blame for the Deepwater Horizon
disaster as are BP’s flawed managerial decisions. If Transocean has not
learned the lessons of the largest oil disaster in American history,
then we all have great reason to worry.
Since 2008, 73 percent
of incidents that triggered federal investigations into safety and
other problems on deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf have been on rigs
operated by Transocean, according to the Wall Street Journal.
event was set in motion years ago by these companies needlessly rushing
to make money faster, while cutting corners to save money,” Stephen
Lane Stone, a Transocean roustabout who survived the April 20
explosion, told a Congressional committee last May.
“When these companies put their savings over our safety, they gambled
with our lives. They gambled with my life. They gambled with the lives
of 11 of my crew members who will never see their families or loved
The results of that cost cutting were apparent all
across the Deepwater Horizon – a rig leased by BP and run by
Transocean. Of the 126 people on board the rig on April 20, 79 worked
for Transocean. More tragically, of the 11 men who died that day, nine
were Transocean employees.
Testimony from federal investigations
reveals charges of literally hundreds of unattended repair issues on
the Horizon. Transocean chief electronics technician for the rig, Mike
Williams, described one as “the blue screen of death,” explaining that
the computer screens regularly “locked up” with no data coming through,
making it impossible for the drillers at those chairs to know what was
happening in the well 18,500 feet below.
Williams also reported
the failure to utilize the automatic alarm systems. On April 20, as gas
rose from the Macondo well into the rig, the crew should have been
automatically alerted and operations in their areas automatically shut
in. Instead, the automatic gas alarms were intentionally inhibited, set
to record information but not to trigger alarms.
More than a
year before, Williams asked why. His superiors replied that they did
not want people woken up “at three o’clock in the morning due to false
alarms.” When Williams tried to fix the alarms, Transocean subsea
supervisor Mark Hay reportedly told him, “The damn thing’s been in
bypass for five years. Why did you even mess with it?” Hay said,
“Matter of fact, the entire [Transocean] fleet runs them in bypass.”
without the alarms, the blowout preventer (BOP) should have shut in the
well. But when the engineers in the drill room triggered it, the BOP
failed to activate.
The rig has two additional backups. The
first, the Emergency Disconnect System (EDS), triggers the BOP and
separates the rig from the wellhead. The EDS was activated by the crew
on the bridge, but again, nothing happened.
require BOPs to be recertified every five years. The Deepwater Horizon
BOP had been in use for nearly 10 years and had never been recertified.
Getting it recertified would have required Transocean to take the rig
out of use for months while the four-story stack was disassembled and
There were several problems with the BOP that were
well known on the rig and had been reported in the BP Daily Operations
Reports as early as March 10. Both BP and Transocean officials knew the
BOP had a hydraulic leak. They also knew that federal regulations
required that if “a BOP control station or pod ... does not function
properly,” the rig must “suspend further drilling operations” until
When the BOP failed to activate from the floor and
from the bridge, there should have been one more backup, the automatic
mode function (AMF), but it failed, too. The reason, according to BP,
is that the batteries had run down.
All across the Deepwater
Horizon, the technology on which everything so dearly depends was
failing, and with catastrophic results.
Rather than overhaul its
safety system, Transocean declared that in 2010 “we made significant
progress in achieving our strategic and operational objectives for the
year,” but unfortunately, “these developments were overshadowed by the
April 20, 2010 fire and explosion onboard our semi-submersible drilling
rig, the Deepwater Horizon.”
Unfortunately, the public has
allowed the events aboard the Deepwater Horizon and all that followed
its explosion to be overshadowed as well. As we approach the one-year
anniversary, it is time to learn the lessons of that disaster: that
neither the technology nor the regulation of deepwater drilling is
capable of protecting the workers on the rigs, the ecosystems within
which they work, or those whose livelihoods are dependent upon those
water ways and beaches.
As oil industry analyst Byron King has said,
“We have gone to a different planet in going to the deepwater. An alien
environment. And what do you know from every science fiction movie? The
aliens can kill us.”Antonia Juhasz is the author of Black Tide: the Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill (Wiley April 2011), as well as The Tyranny of Oil and The Bush Agenda. She is the director of the Energy Program at Global Exchange in San Francisco.