Just last week, a House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment held a hearing on the current status of the BP oil spill cleanup effort in the Gulf. Subcommittee Chair Ed Markey, the only committee member to attend the hearing during recess, stated his disapproval of the often criticized BP efforts to clean up the spill. Some speculate that effort has been hampered by a tight budget and resistance to expensive, if experimental new cleanup efforts that could have protected more of the Gulf coastline.
Markey’s displeasure with cleanup efforts and the subsequent impact on the seafood industry; however, still do not get to the heart of the matter. Without BP’s disregard for safety leading up to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, the seafood industry and the broader Gulf Region would not face these dire circumstances. Instead of condemning an entire industry for what one company did, Congress must look specifically at BP’s safety history and every American must demand that they do so.
The impacts of the spill have leaked out of the Gulf due to the lost jobs and economic activity resulting from the deepwater drilling moratorium. The minority communities of America are being hit especially hard by these additional job losses. While the national unemployment rate sits just below 10%, studies have predicted that the number could be as high as 17% in African American communities.
Government overreaction to the missteps of one safety outlier are resulting in further desperation and economic degradation in our minority communities who rely on the many jobs provided by the oil and gas industry. Punishment must be doled out as a result of the gross safety oversight in the Gulf, but it must be directed toward those at fault, not the hardworking Americans currently being deprived of jobs.
Below is a list of failures on the part of BP, a company whose reckless and careless actions have severely damaged both the Gulf Coast and energy industry:
For more than a decade before the fateful Gulf oil spill disaster, BP was frequently alleged to be sacrificing occupational and environmental safety to control costs, whether by intimidating its workers who spoke out or by cutting maintenance budgets; by sweating low-impact events instead of larger risks, or just by not having a strong enough “safety culture” to avoid occasional breakdowns.
Whatever the causes, BP’s safety failures have sometimes been so dramatic that they attract publicity. Here are the worst offenses, several taking place at the same facilities.
10. THUNDER HORSE, JULY 2005
Thunder Horse PDQ is the largest offshore platform of its kind in the world. It was designed to survive a once-in-a-century hurricane event, but just months after completion this $5 billion marvel was nearly capsized by an incorrectly plumbed 6-inch length of pipe.
Thunder Horse was evacuated at the approach of Hurricane Dennis, and three days later the titanic platform was sighted tilting heavily in the water, in danger of sinking. The hurricane wasn’t at fault; the pipe had simply allowed water to flow freely into ballast tanks on one side of the platform. The water damaged pumps, motors, wiring and cables, forcing an estimated $250 million in repairs. Later tests would reveal inch-wide gashes in the undersea pipeline caused by inadequate welds. As The New York Times reported, “It could have been catastrophic,” said Gordon A. Aaker Jr., a senior engineering consultant on the project. “You would have lost a lot of oil a mile down before you would have even known. It could have been a helluva spill — much like the Deepwater Horizon.”
And that, of course, would have moved this incident much closer to #1.
9. CARSON REFINERY, 1999-2002
For years, a BP subsidiary was permitted to police its own facilities in the Los Angeles area for emissions problems. BP’s Carson Refinery, to take their word for it, “had nearly perfect compliance, reporting no tank problems and making virtually no repairs.”
How convenient for a cost-cutting company to discover it has no need for maintenance!
Sound fishy? Local regulators thought so too. After BP forced them to get a warrant to investigate, they found that the noncompliance rate was some 20 times higher than reported, as “some tanker seals had extensive tears, tank roofs had pervasive leaks and there were enough major defects to lead to thousands of violations.”
8. TEXAS CITY 46-DAY TOXIC CHEMICAL RELEASE, APRIL 6, 2010
BP’s Texas City refinery, in the greater Houston area, is the third-largest refinery in the United States. Here, just days before the Deepwater Horizon blowout, a compressor that captures noxious chemicals malfunctioned due to “an iron sulfide buildup around a seal, a problem BP's own people said could be solved by periodically cleaning the pipes.”
This gave BP a choice: shut down the plant, which is time-consuming and expensive, or divert the gases to be burned off into carbon dioxide by a flare high above the ground. The downside to the latter option is unburned emissions; as ProPublica reported, “Widely circulated industry guidelines assume that at least 2 percent of what is sent to a flare goes unburned and passes into the atmosphere.”
That can quickly add up, so in most places the flare is used only in emergencies.
BP diverted the gases to the flare for several weeks while they replaced the machinery, believing that they would be able to detect excess emissions. But until June 4, they hadn’t analyzed the data from their monitors and discovered that they had released hundreds of tons of chemicals into the air.
The company now estimates that 538,000 pounds of chemicals escaped from the refinery while it was replacing the equipment. These included 17,000 pounds of benzene, a known carcinogen; 37,000 pounds of nitrogen oxides, which contribute to respiratory problems; and 186,000 pounds of carbon monoxide.
Even by Texas’s relatively lenient air standards, that’s a problem.
7. NORTH SLOPE PIG INCIDENT, JANUARY 15, 2009
Pipeline inspection gauges, or “pigs,” are tools sent through pipes to clean and inspect them, propelled by the pressure of the oil/gas/etc. In this case, a pig got stuck and lost, allowing gas to pass around it, which ended up “causing a significant venting of gas to the atmosphere and the complete, temporary shutdown of the [Trans-Alaska Pipeline System],” the 800 mile artery connecting Alaska’s northern and southern coasts.
6. TEXAS CITY VAPOR CLOUD, AUGUST 10, 2005
A gas-oil leak at the Texas City refinery produced a vapor cloud that prompted a “shelter-in-place” order to be issued for the Texas City area, meaning residents are supposed to hunker down, put out any fires and take steps to avoid breathing any outside air. No one was injured, so what makes this one of BP’s darkest days? Two things:
• It happened on the same day that an unrelated fire broke out at Chocolate Bayou, another Texas plant run by a BP subsidiary. The fire required an emergency shutdown, and it would continue burning for two days. Locals were advised to stay indoors.
• This leak came at the same Texas City location where a ruptured pipe had caused an explosion just two months earlier (also requiring a shelter-in-place order), and where BP had suffered the deadliest accident in the company’s history just two months before that – more on that later.
5. PRUDHOE BAY GAS PIPELINE RUPTURE, SEPTEMBER 29, 2008
A high-pressure natural gas pipeline in the great Alaskan field “separated,” sending 14-foot and 28-foot sections of the pipe flying 900 feet away from the line – but fortunately, the gas itself didn’t ignite.
“No one was hurt, but the official state report said the incident could have been catastrophic,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
Bea, an engineering professor at U.C. Berkeley, is “a well-known expert on catastrophes involving complex systems,” who, at BP’s request, in 2002-03 studied their “approach to catastrophic risk management at its U.S. facilities in Texas City, Prudhoe Bay, and Cherry Point, Washington, and made recommendations directly to John Browne, then CEO of BP, and other members of top management.”
Again, timing is everything: half an hour later, an unrelated BP incident on another part of the North Slope caused a gas release. And these events happened more than two years after the next item on this list, the most consequential mistake BP has made on the Slope to date.
4. THE NORTH SLOPE’S BIGGEST SPILL, MARCH 2, 2006
As production from the Prudhoe Bay field on Alaska’s North Slope declined in the late ’90s and early 2000s, BP slashed costs to compensate. Despite their Alaska operations being on probation for the first half of the decade after they pled guilty to illegal dumping at an offshore drilling field, a steady stream of complaints and investigations (both internally and by state inspectors) revealed that safety and maintenance were sacrificed to cut costs.
The neglect culminated in the largest spill ever recorded on the North Slope: more than 200,000 gallons (more than 5,000 barrels) of crude oil. BP was oblivious to the spill for five days until a field worker drove through the area and smelled the crude. The leak issued from a dime-sized hole, but 16 miles of pipeline proved to be dangerously corroded; replacing that pipe and installing a new leak-detection system cost BP half a billion dollars.
You might think that this incident would teach BP’s Alaskan management that cutting corners ultimately doesn’t pay. But five months later, a safety technician contractor who had been complaining about pipeline inspectors faking their reports found himself canned after he pointed out a crack in a service pipe and halted some nearby work that was kicking up sparks.
3. TEXAS CITY – THE BIG EXPLOSION, MARCH 23, 2005
The big explosion at the Texas City refinery in 2005 was only the most dramatic episode in the facility’s history of serious safety problems. Despite malfunctioning alarm systems, an octane-boosting unit was restarted, following which “a distillation tower and attached blow down drum were overfilled with highly flammable liquid hydrocarbons,” and when the blow down drum vented the liquids like a geyser into the air, it caused an explosion that was felt five miles away, which along with the resulting fires killed 15 and injured 170.
The same blow down drum had vented these vapors eight times between 1994 and 2004, and twice the system had caught fire. In fact, the refinery experienced 40 to 80 fires a year, contributing to a sense of danger among the crew:
• A worker suggested in 2004 that to improve the plant, “Quit waiting for a known possible unit disaster to happen before correcting the problem.”
• A month before the explosion, another worker e-mailed management and warned, “I truly believe that we are on the verge of something bigger happening.”
When the disaster they dreaded happened, it was a huge and costly black eye for the company. Investigators would later find that “routine maintenance that might have averted the accident had been delayed because of pressure to reduce expenses.”
A record $21 million in fines followed.
BP even failed to address these problems years later: in October 2009, after a 6-month inspection, the Texas City refinery was found to have hundreds of “egregious willful” safety violations, earning them another $87.4 million in fines to eclipse the previous record.
While the big Texas City explosion was the deadliest accident in BP’s history, it could have been a distant second or third.
2. PRUDHOE BAY CENTRAL COMPRESSOR PLANT, OCTOBER 10, 2009
This near-disaster, which wasn’t publicized until well after it happened, started with a simple enough mechanical error, when “a staging valve stuck closed at a large central compressor station in Prudhoe Bay where gas is captured for re-injection back underground.”
This is a contingency BP plans for, but their system for handling this problem wasn’t operating, and BP didn’t know it: A backup flare meant to burn off that collection of gas was not lit at the time, and cameras, installed so BP's staff could monitor the flare's functions in real time, were not pointed in the right direction. There was no explosion; the gas vented out before anything could ignite it.
That is, while BP monitors were unable to see that the pilot was out, a great buildup of gas escaped past it and fortunately wasn’t ignited by anything else. Robert Bea “said the situation at the compressor station sounded like a ticking bomb.”
“It’s hard to describe these explosions in terms that people can understand," he said. "It would rival the biggest ones that we have ever had in the history of the oil and gas industry.”
Bea said a blast zone could reach 300 feet and leave a crater 90 feet wide. He likened the potential scenario to a gas valve error that led to the massive explosion of an offshore drilling platform called Piper Alpha in the North Sea in 1988, in which 167 workers were killed.
1. FORTIES ALPHA, NOVEMBER 27, 2003
Another incident that resembled Piper Alpha was a near-catastrophe at another aging offshore rig in the North Sea called Forties Alpha, where BP had slashed the maintenance budget, leading them to break safety laws by failing to guard against corrosion on a gas pipe. As reported in the Weekly Standard:
…[the] gas line had ruptured—allowing thousands of pounds of pressurized gas to escape at supersonic velocity. That caused a thunderous sonic boom. Debris from the burst pipe and its cladding rained down, adding to the impression that “an artillery shell had just hit the platform.” The escaping gas quickly formed a huge and potentially lethal cloud around the rig. Now the threat of an actual explosion was very real. The smallest spark would detonate more than a ton of methane gas.
No one died or was even hurt that day on Forties Alpha, thanks in part to high winds that helped to disperse the gas after about 20 minutes of extreme danger to the platform and its crew of 180 people.
BP was fined $290,000, and the company’s first calamity on an offshore rig was averted. For a little while.
In a few short weeks when members of Congress return to Washington, it is vital they tackle this issue head on. Look specifically at BP’s record – a clear deviation from the industry norm.
The stage has been set, the evidence laid out. It is time to stop punishing the entire energy industry for the negligence of one player.
Harry Alford is President & CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
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