Geology And Geophysics

Safety Challenges of the Oil Industry

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There is no greater challenge for offshore oil and gas production than safety.  In the extraction of the crude, transporting it and in the refinery process, the hazardous material must be handled by trained professionals to insure that the toxic substance does not explode or contaminate its environs.  In their book, Oil Spill Dispersants: Efficacy and Effects, the authors warn that “the complex production and distribution network required to meet the demand [for oil] make spills of oil and other petroleum products inevitable” (Oil Spill Dispersants: Efficacy and Effects, Executive Summary, p.9, NRC, 2003). 

Gas production prices are kept low when extraction and transport costs are kept to a safe minimum.  But these critical steps in producing the final product must be consistent to avoid carelessness and using poor quality hardware.  Safety must be the central focus from start to finish.  Initial expenses and any profits gained are lost in the blink of an eye when there are safety accidents; especially the magnitude of an Exxon Valdez or the BP oil spill at the Deepwater Horizon Oil Rig in the Gulf of Mexico.  The BP oil platform had a history of problems with other spills, fires and even a collision “because of equipment failure, human error and bad weather” according to one AP report.  Sadly this appears to be the trend in the oil production industry where there are disasters of this sort. (“Rig had history of spills, fires before big one”, by Frank Jordans and Garance Burke, AP, 5/5/10)

Following the oil rig blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel of 1969, where some 200,000 gallons of oil spread across 800 miles of California coast line, the Senate Public Works Committee passed a bill that would lay the costs of such cleanups at the feet of the oil industry accept as it results from “an act of God” or war.  In April, 1977 there was an explosion on a North Sea Platform where 36,000 gallons of crude dumped into the ocean waters for days covering an estimated area of 80,000 acres.  Comments by one newspaper at the time had oil industry executives assuring the public that “oil spills need not to occur or can be kept to an absolute minimum” (The Spokesman Review, Spokane, WA. 4/27/77)

Twelve years later on June 3rd of 1979 “the worst oil spill in history” occurred in the Bay of Campeche in Mexico where over 140 million gallons of the raw sludge spilled out for over thirty days and eventually washed up on the Texas coast around Padre Island.  Ten years following this came the Exxon Valdez tragedy that “contaminated 1,300 miles of largely untouched shoreline and killed tens of thousands of seabirds, otters and seals along with 250 eagles and 22 killer whales.” (“Gulf Oil Spill Is Bad, but How Bad?” John M. Broder and Tom Zeller, NY Times, 5/3/10)

Such oil and gas production accidents are not limited to the original source however.  The most recent safety hazard occurred Wednesday, May 5th at the AGE Refining Co.  There were no fatalities but at least two people were severely injured when an 18-wheeler was being loaded with the jet fuel product manufactured at the San Antonio site.  It set off a chain of explosions and people living nearby had to be evacuated from their homes until the threat was contained.  The facility apparently lacked the means to contain the fire up front because a San Antonio fire spokeswoman, Deborah Foster, said they “were bringing more foam in as fast as possible” to get the fire under control. (“Man found safe after explosion at Texas refinery”, By PAUL J. WEBER (AP), 5/5/10)

Last month, April 2nd, the second deadliest refinery explosion at the Tesoro Refinery in Washington state killed five people and critically injured two others.  The explosion appears to be the result of “maintenance work performed” at the time.  Sadly these deaths and injuries came after the “state of Washington fined Tesoro $85,700 a year ago [when] an inspection found 17 serious safety and health violations at the Anacortes refinery". (‘Multiple’ safety violations found at plant in ’09, staff and news service reports, 4/2/10)

In March 2005 the deadliest refinery explosion in Texas City, Tx.  was one owned by British Petroleum (BP), killing 15 and injuring hundreds more.  BP was found negligent in violating numerous safety standards.  Not only did the courts force BP to compensate victims and their families but had BP spend hundreds of millions of dollars to bring the facility up to the safety standards they were negligent in.

Research shows “that approximately 706 million gallons of waste oil enter the ocean every year, with over half coming from land drainage and waste disposal”.  About 8% of this comes from “[o]ffshore drilling and production operations and spills or leaks from ships or tankers”. (Oil Spills: Impact on the Ocean, Water Encyclopedia: Science and Issues)  Of the 150 oil refineries in this country deadly accidents reoccur all too often for repeated safety violations.  Following the Tesoro Refinery incident John Bresland, chairman of the Chemical Safety Board, was clearly frustrated when he said, “If the aviation industry had the same number and types of incidents as the refining industry, I don't think people would be flying too much".

A Seattle Times report noted that refinery companies “don't replace equipment enough or don't have systems in place to insure that pipes and machinery are in top order. Workers are fatigued or lack training. Accidents typically happen during or shortly after restarting equipment that has been taken offline for repairs or maintenance, and typically involve several things going wrong at once.”  The oil and gas industry representative, the American Petroleum Institute (API) assures legislators and the public that the industry “makes safety a top priority” but the record of failure for many of these companies doesn’t support the API’s conclusions. (“Refinery tragedies all too often”, by Craig Welch, Seattle Times, 4/3/10)

In an age where oil prices are rising and $4.00 a gallon gas may be in the near future, the public is getting frustrated with such high costs being passed on to them from the results of preventable accidents.  One insurer for the oil refining industry alerted federal safety regulators back in 2008 after they “found that U.S. refineries lose four times more money from accidents than refineries in the rest of the world.”  The Swiss insurance company, Swiss Re, also pointed out that the “discrepancy results from operational hazards and U.S. plants ‘pushing the operating envelope". (“U.S. oil refineries have history of safety problems”, by Tim Fowler, Houston Chronicle, 4/5/10)

Safety not only causes the immediate consequences in human life lost and communities disrupted but has long term effects on the environment and human health.  Twenty-one years after the Exxon Valdez occurrence there is still a physical presence of that oil spill.  Under favorable rulings by more industry-sympathetic courts, Exxon ultimately was able to separate itself from any remaining costs for clean up, leaving the taxpayer to deal with it.

The ongoing public dispute about off-shore drilling and its negative consequences to the environment as opposed to the need to provide more friendly sources of oil close to home is taking on a broader view by many.  Oil spill costs are prohibitive because “the most aggressive cleanup efforts are largely ineffective; these kinds of accidents impose staggering costs, and the environmental impacts persist for many years” says John Podesta and Joseph Romm (The Need to Beat Our Oil Addiction, Politico, 5/3/10).   If the oil industry is to retain any viable support from the American public and their congressional representatives they will need to walk the walk of Safety First and not merely pay lip service to it as they have over the last 40 years.


Water Encyclopedia

More about this author: L.B. Woodgate

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