Just How Dangerous Are Oil Rigs, Anyway?

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U.S. Coast Guard / Getty

Fire boats battle a fire at the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon April 21, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana.

By any measure, drilling for oil and gas offshore is one of America's most dangerous professions. The risks are unavoidable: workers are on shift for an average of 12-hours a day dealing with highly combustible materials on a platform where cranes swing heavy equipment constantly overhead. All of this isolated hundreds of miles off coast. With seven to 14-days on the rig at a time, it can be a lonely experience. If something goes wrong, the Coast Guard responds, though even in the best-case scenario, help is not close. In the meantime, the crew uses watertight life pods that can hold up to ten people and that lower down into the water in the event of an emergency. There they wait for help to arrive. Such conditions can lead to rare but catastrophic incidents like the explosion that occurred April 20 in the Gulf of Mexico, some 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, aboard Transocean's Deepwater Horizon oil rig. One-hundred fifteen people made it to safety. Eleven workers who are unaccounted for are presumed dead.

The mandatory hard hats and steel-toed boots, aren't just for looks. In 2008, 120 people were killed in the oil and gas industry, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Of those, 21 people died in the oil and gas extraction industry, which includes offshore oil rigs. Incidents aboard oil rigs are kind of like plane crashes: they occur rarely but when they do happen they have the potential to kill quickly, cost companies millions of dollars and raise calls for increased safety and preparation measures. "These events are low probability with a high consequence," said Greg McCormack, director of the Petroleum Extension Service at the University of Texas, which works with the oil and gas industry to safety train workers. "It is a hazardous business and that is what the industry has to deal with on a daily basis."

Though catastrophic incidents are rare, smaller incidents occur much more frequently. The Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling, reported 39 fires or explosions in the first five months of 2009. The good news is most of those incidents were minor and did not result in death; the bad news is that they even occurred at all. For the companies, managing the high risk is of the utmost importance when it comes to both safety and perception. "This is ultra-high stakes gambling," said Robert Bryce, a senior fellow with the Center for Energy Policy and the Environment with the Manhattan Institute. "Accidents like this are not only bad PR for the companies that are involved, they're extremely bad business." Energy company BP, which leased the Deepwater Horizon from Transocean for an estimated $450,000 a day, has been involved in a few large incidents in recent years. An explosion at a refinery in Texas City, Texas in 2005 killed 15 workers and injured many more. "BP is already snake bit when it comes to safety issues," Bryce said. "This is another bad blow."

Safety in the oil and gas industry is a concern both on and off shore. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which oversees working conditions in refineries on land, has issued multi-million dollar fines to BP, including a record fine of more $80 million following the Texas City incident. "There have been a number of incidents where no one has been killed or hurt, but where people could have been hurt quite seriously," said David Michaels, assistant secretary for OSHA. "We're very concerned that the oil industry is not making the investment needed to run these refineries safely and workers are paying for it with their lives." But Erik Milito, director of Upstream and Industry Operations for the American Petroleum Institute, an oil industry trade group, said the companies obviously take safety to heart. "It's the number one priority," he said. "Companies go through a lot to manage the risk. The end goal is zero accidents, zero fatalities, zero injuries."

Such an incident cannot help but call into question the Obama Administration's plans to expand offshore drilling in the U.S. On March 31, the president announced his plans to open areas along the Atlantic coastline, the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the north coast of Alaska. According to a Pew Research Center survey released March 2, 63% of Americans are in favor of allowing more offshore drilling for oil and gas in U.S. waters. While a majority of the public supports the plan, a giant explosion in the middle of the ocean is sure to bring out the naysayers. "The timing of this in terms of the Obama Administration's decision is terrible," Bryce said. "It clearly gives ammunition to the critics of the oil industry in general, and offshore drilling in particular. They now have more ammunition that they can use to say, 'Well, see, this is dangerous. This is dirty.'"