Wednesday, May 26, 2010

BP’s inadequate safety measures and response to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill

What is the future of offshore drilling?

by Peter Stern

British Petroleum’s response [physically and verbally] to the Gulf oil spill has been inadequate and ineffective. The causes of the tragic gas explosion and oil spill on British Petroleum’s (BP's) leased Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico have not yet been fully determined, but various pieces of fail-safe equipment did not function as designed. Furthermore, 11 rig personnel were killed by the blast and so far the spillage has not been contained although BP has tried several options to do so. Despite BP's response, the company’s actions in the face of the explosion and spill are facing unprecedented scrutiny, thanks to a long history of legal and ethical violations that strongly suggests that the London-based company places profits above the safety of its personnel and the environment.

During the past two decades, BP and its subsidiaries have been convicted three times of environmental crimes in Alaska and Texas, including two felonies and it is still on probation for two of them. Previously, BP also was charged with the largest fine in U.S. oil-related history for premeditated work safety violations and is under several safety investigations, including one in Washington State that resulted last week in a relatively benign $69,000 fine for 13 serious safety violations at its Cherry Point refinery near Ferndale, Washington. After some previous denial and finger-pointing, BP now states it accepts some responsibility for the spill. BP denies that it is guilty of a consistent pattern of safety and environmental failures. Several company spokespersons publicly stated that BP is “responsible and that safety is the company’s highest priority.” However, currently the spill in the Gulf of Mexico seems to have been caused by the same type of “profits before safety” mentality and the company may be in for a huge fight over its role in the deaths of the 11 rig crew members and also regarding the spill’s impact on the environment and wildlife in the gulf and along the coast. The spill has already caused a major problem with fishing operations and the tourist industry of several states.

BP's best known disaster took place in 2005, when an explosion at its refinery in Texas City near Galveston killed 15 workers, injured 180 people and forced thousands of local residents to stay in their homes. An investigation of the explosion by the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board blamed BP for the explosion “and offered a scathing assessment of the company. It found ‘organizational and safety deficiencies at all levels of the BP Corporation’ and said management failures could be traced from Texas to London.”

With the latest gulf spill, BP will have a lot of explaining to do, especially regarding the ongoing hazards caused by its offshore drilling. In 2005 the company eventually pleaded guilty to a felony violation of the Clean Air Act, was fined $50 million and was sentenced to three years probation. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration assessed BP the largest fine in OSHA history — $87 million — after inspectors found 270 safety violations that had been previously cited but not fixed and 439 new violations.

The ongoing safety issues with BP offshore drilling assignments point to lax oversight of its operations by government agencies who must assume some of the responsibility for the latest explosion, oil spill and the 11 personnel deaths. Once again BP does not admit to any wrong-doing, but the Blowout Protecter (BOP) malfunctioned and could not be manually operated and the remote option for the BOP also failed, for which the company still has no explanation. BP’s action response to the current Gulf of Mexico spill so far has not been effective and the company has not publicly accepted responsibility for the death of the 11 personnel or for the environmental catastrophe we are all witnessing. With its unprofessional history and safety incompetence, BP may have a difficult time as its costs mushroom and as the spill continues and containment remains elusive. In addition, already the local areas are predicting a large hit in the seafood industry as oyster and clam beds will be destroyed as will the habitats of most of the local sea creatures and fish. Rightly so, Louisiana fisherman have filed a lawsuit against BP.

Will the third largest oil and gas company in the world be forced to assume responsibility? Will BP be adequately punished for its ongoing avoidance of appropriate safety consciousness and enforcement? Why can’t the company stop the oil leak, which has continued for more than one month? Americans will be watching the Gulf spill, BP and the government investigation and result very carefully and should cause enough concern to reconsider the future of offshore drilling.

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