Have drilling disasters made the oil industry safer?

On Behalf of | Sep 30, 2021 | Oilfield and gas production injuries |

Most of the oil platform’s workers had eaten their Tuesday evening dinner and were settling in to watch a movie, read a good book or play an Xbox game or two. They didn’t know that high-pressure methane gas from the oil well nearly 5,000 feet below the Gulf of Mexico’s surface was about to erupt.

When the blowout hit at 7:45 on the evening of April 20, 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig was destroyed. Eleven workers died that night and 17 more were injured by the explosion and fire.

Over the next 87 days, more than 4 million barrels of oil were released into the warm water of the Gulf.

When the well was finally capped, the Deepwater Horizon had earned its place in infamy as the worst oil disaster in history.

A list of pain and loss

Five years earlier, and about 250 miles southeast of San Antonio, the Texas City Refinery explosion had killed 15 workers and injured 180 others.

The list of recent Texas oil industry accidents is long and grim, including:

  • February 2007: Three workers sustained serious burns in a propane fire at a refinery in Sunray, nearly 600 miles north of San Antonio.
  • July 2009: A worker was critically burned in a fire at a Corpus Christi refinery.
  • April 2014: Two workers were killed and nine injured in a Loving County oil well explosion.
  • October 2017: A pair of oilfield workers were injured when an oil storage tank exploded about 70 miles southwest of San Antonio in Dilley.
  • July 2018: One worker was killed and another was injured in a tank battery fire near Loving.

That’s just a partial list of some of the worst oil industry accidents in the state in recent years.

Safety improvement claims

The oil industry says that safety at refineries is improving, however. Refinery workers are now five times less likely to be injured in the workplace than employees in other manufacturing sectors, according to the American Petroleum Institute.

The industry lobbying organization also claims that illnesses and injuries in the refining sector dropped from 1.1 per 100 full-time workers to 0.7 from 2008 to 2017.

Offshore claims, too

The offshore drilling industry also claims to have made work on its floating rigs safer since the Deepwater Horizon.

Back in 2010, the capping stack used to stop the gush of oil from the Gulf’s floor after the Deepwater Horizon explosion had to be built from scratch. Today, regulators require the equipment to be standing by in case of an emergency.

“When they give us the word ‘go,’ we can get offshore with a capping stack [and] hopefully get the well capped off within the matter of a week,” said Marine Well Containment Services (MWCC) CEO David Nickerson. He said MWCC has gear designed to not only cap underwater wells but also tech to capture oil, pump it into tankers and bring it ashore until the oil flow has been stopped.

“Ten years ago, absolutely none of this existed. All of this has been built directly in response to the Deepwater Horizon incident,” he said.

Exploration stop, start

In the early days of the Biden administration, the president paused drilling auctions for offshore operations. Three months ago, a federal judge ordered the auctions resumed. The White House recently announced plans to comply with the court order, opening millions of acres (mostly offshore, but some onshore as well) to oil and gas exploration.

Retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen – head of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill response — says he’s been asked many times in the years since the disaster if it’s now safe to drill.

No risk-free oil and gas extraction

Says Allen, “My answer is that’s not the question, because there is no risk-free way to extract fossil fuels from the earth.”

Injured South Texas oilfield or gas production workers certainly know that as well as anyone. Recovery of your physical and financial health can be a difficult process that begins with expert medical care and an understanding of your legal options.