Less than 24 hours after the US Government announced historic criminal fines for BP’s activities leading up to and following the BP oil disaster, an explosion on a production platform about 25 miles south of Grand Isle, LA left several workers injured, one man dead and another missing. The owner of the rig, Black Elk Energy, announced today that they were calling off the search for the missing worker.
This tragic event is a somber reminder that accidents can and do happen despite our best efforts to prevent them. Whether in the Gulf of Mexico or the Chukchi Sea (off Alaska’s Arctic coast), fossil fuel extraction carries risks to the workers as well as to sensitive environmental resources.
When an event like the explosion on the Black Elk rig occurs, it is natural and appropriate to focus first on the well-being of those involved in a tragedy and then on the recovery and restoration of our natural resources, but it is critical to remember that we must also ensure that we are better prepared for the accidents and disasters that will inevitably occur.
In the wake of the BP oil disaster in 2010, President Barack Obama established the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. The Commission’s task was to identify the root causes of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and to make recommendations to guard against, and mitigate the impact of, any oil spills associated with offshore drilling in the future. You can read the report here.
The Commission delivered the report in January of 2011, and made a series of recommendations to improve oil spill response planning, as well as safety recommendations, and suggested policy and funding changes.
Not satisfied with issuing a report that collects dust on a shelf, several members of the Commission went on to form a group known as Oil Spill Commission ACTION. This group issued a report card in April of 2012 that graded the oil and gas industry, regulators and elected officials on their progress towards implementing the recommendations of the commission. Grades ranged from a B for “Improving Safety and Environmental Protections” to a D for Congress for failing to provide adequate resources.
When incidents like rig explosions occur, the government and the regulated entity (like BP or Black Elk Energy) use pre-existing response plans to address the threat and mitigate damage. Every coastal area also has what is known as an Area Contingency Plan (or ACP), which is developed by a wide-range of agencies like the US Coast Guard and local officials. One of the critical pieces of the ACP is the identification of environmentally sensitive areas and a plan for how to protect them. As you can see from the map created by Matt Love, a conservation biologist at Ocean Conservancy, the area surrounding the Black Elk Energy rig has many important ecological values, including providing important habitat for developing menhaden eggs and larvae.
We must not lose sight of how oil and gas companies, regulatory agencies and legislators are progressing with implementation of the recommendations of the Oil Spill Commission. We must also track their efforts to identify and protect environmentally sensitive areas, whether in the Gulf or in the Arctic. Accidents are going to happen, but we can work to reduce the risk of disasters if we commit to preparing for them instead of always betting that we can avoid a worst-case scenario.