At first, Christopher Jones assumed his brother was fine.
Jones’ brother, Gordon, was working on the Deepwater Horizon on April 20, 2010, when a late-night explosion ignited a chain of events that led to one of the worst manmade disasters in U.S. history. A friend of his father had helped Gordon land a job as a mud engineer with M-I SWACO.
Gordon was a good golfer and was quick with a joke. Once the 28-year-old learned the business, Chris Jones says, his friendly, easy-going personality would have befitted an executive who shows the out-of-town clients a good time.
“Gordon’s future was not on that rig,” Jones says of his brother, who graduated from Catholic High School and LSU.
Gordon had been out on the rig only for a few days. His shift was supposed to last one week, in order for him to return home for the birth of his second child.
Then Jones heard from his father the morning after the accident.
“He started to break up and said, ‘Usually when they have explosions like that, nobody makes it,'” Jones says.
It was a bleak assessment that he refused to believe.
No one could tell Jones whether his brother had been accounted for; he now thinks some of those people knew, but they didn’t want to say. Even while driving to Port Fourchon the day after the explosion, he was convinced that he would be picking up his brother.
But through hours of phone calls, including several to Gordon’s cell, the realization that his brother had been killed slowly sank in. Ten other men who were on the rig that night also never made it home.
Since the disaster, Jones, a Baton Rouge attorney, has advocated for the thousands of rig workers whose livelihoods—and very lives—depend on safe exploration for oil. He’s met President Barack Obama and testified twice before Congress.
“No worker in the oil industry should have to put their life on the line to provide for their families,” he says. “It’s now been proven that every worker on the Deepwater Horizon was doing exactly that.”
An isolated incident?
“Our investigation shows that a series of specific and preventable human and engineering failures were the immediate causes of the disaster,” says William Reilly, co-chair of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling. “But, in fact, this disaster was the almost inevitable result of years of industry and government complacency.”
The commission’s report laid much of the blame on BP, rig owner Transocean Ltd. and cement contractor Halliburton; BP was leasing the rig from Transocean and owned the well that blew out. But the postmortem is ongoing; the 300-ton blowout preventer built by Cameron International has been the focus of a different federal panel meeting in Metairie this month.
“No worker in the oil industry should have to put their life on the line to provide for their families. It’s now been proven that every worker on the Deepwater Horizon was doing exactly that.”—Christopher Jones (left), whose brother Gordon (above) was one of the 11 men killed when the Deepwater Horizon exploded.
Mike Fry, an equipment manager for Transocean, testified earlier this month that the BOP was not given a complete overhaul after five years in service, as recommended by the American Petroleum Institute. A disputed report by a government-hired testing firm says the BOP failed because of faulty design and a bent piece of pipe.
The oil and gas industry doesn’t want to seem callous or cavalier about the tragedy or the environmental disaster that followed, and officials often say they’re eager to work with the government to improve safety. In the next breath, however, they say the Macondo well blowout was an isolated incident, caused by a few rogue actors or unpredictable mechanical failures, and they bristle at any suggestion that their companies’ activities are not already safe.
“History will show industry has gone above and beyond in taking the proper measures for safety preparedness,” Louisiana Oil & Gas Association President Don Briggs says.
Since 1947, more than 50,000 successful wells, including 14,000 deepwater wells, have been drilled in the Gulf of Mexico without serious incident, Briggs says. He credits neither luck nor sound federal regulations, but a safety-first culture within the industry.
But during a January forum at LSU with members of the federal oil spill commission, Briggs concedes the group’s work has “opened some eyes.”
“We have weaknesses in some of our procedures,” he says. “We don’t dispute that.”
Fran Ulmer, chancellor of the University of Alaska Anchorage and one of the commissioners at the Baton Rouge meeting, says there were 79 well-control incidents from 1996-2006, any one of which could have, under the right circumstances, been another Macondo. Offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, she says, has four times the fatality rate of the North Sea.
“It wasn’t a black swan event. It didn’t just happen once,” Ulmer says. “We want this industry to succeed.”
Ulmer means for that last sentence to be reassuring. But it’s a sentiment many politicians and industry allies just aren’t buying.
Politically charged drilling
Frances Beinecke, president of the National Resources Defense Council and another spill commissioner, urges the oil and gas industry to support adequate funding for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement. Without proper support for offshore regulators, she says, offshore producers can’t get back to work.
“Congress thinks they’re protecting you by not letting them do their job,” Beinecke says.
The conversation around offshore drilling, especially since the spill, has been politically charged, mostly along party lines, though some Democrats from oil-producing states tend to side with the industry. Some conservatives say Obama is deliberately trying to destroy Louisiana’s economic and the oil industry with official and de facto offshore drilling moratoriums. Federal officials repeatedly have insisted they’re working as fast as they can, but say that implementing a new safety regime takes time.
On March 16, Jones testified at a U.S. House of Representatives resource committee hearing called “The Obama Administration’s De Facto Moratorium in the Gulf of Mexico: Community and Economic Impacts.” The hearing’s name gives away its political agenda.
“Here we are having a hearing on letting more people go out and drill, without having any changes to improve worker safety to try to avoid the same problems that caused this disaster in the first place,” Jones says.
Scott Angelle, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources, thinks BOEMRE Director Michael Bromwich is doing everything he can to restart offshore exploration. But, he says, the president has only himself to blame for the belief that his administration is stalling the process.
“When the president of the United States goes to the podium for the State of the Union address and doesn’t mention the BP oil spill, but takes the time to say that oil is a commodity of the past, then when permits are slow coming out, it’s easy for people to take on the philosophy that every organization takes on the personality of its leader,” Angelle says.
Angelle, who left the Democratic Party over energy policy differences, could have cited other examples, such as the administration’s decision to impose a deepwater drilling moratorium over the objections of the majority of a panel of scientists that had been conulted. Many critics have noted the federal Export-Import Bank’s offer of $2 billion in loans or loan guarantees to Brazil’s partially state-owned oil company, Petrobras.
“We have abundant energy resources off Louisiana’s coast, but this administration has virtually shut down our offshore industry and instead is using Americans’ tax dollars to support drilling off the coast of Brazil,” says U.S. Sen. David Vitter, a Metairie Republican.
Billionaire George Soros—a major Democratic contributor—is a Petrobras investor, a fact that has spurred conspiracy theories about an inside deal. Ex-Im Bank Chairman Fred Hochberg says the financing will help Petrobras buy goods and services from U.S. firms, so that American workers will be employed as part of the company’s planned $175 billion investment. A five-person bipartisan board appointed by former President George W. Bush unanimously approved the deal, the bank says, adding that bank operations are self-sustaining and don’t use taxpayers’ money.
In a March 30 speech at Georgetown University, Obama announced his intention to cut oil imports by one-third within 10 years. He talked about the spill in that speech, and acknowledged increased domestic production will be necessary to achieve his ambitious goal, along with greater investment in alternative energy. But the president added that the oil industry holds “tens of millions of acres of leases where they’re not producing a single drop.”
“They’re just sitting on supplies of American energy that are ready to be tapped,” Obama said. “That’s why part of our plan is to provide new and better incentives that promote rapid, responsible development of these resources.”
His comments prompt an angry rebuke from Independent Petroleum Association of America CEO Barry Russell.
“Leases can’t be developed if companies don’t have the permits necessary to proceed with exploration and production activities, which take several years and billions of dollars to develop,” Russell says.
The American Petroleum Institute says the new rules largely track the best practices it already recommended for its members. Angelle says he will work to overturn a provision that eliminates categorical exclusions in favor of well-by-well environmental assessments. The Macondo well was approved under an exclusion, but the industry says the lack of a specific assessment did not contribute to the accident.
Angelle also says the federal government should create a list of acceptable consulting firms to handle approvals so companies don’t have to wait for the undermanned bureaucracy.
Still in the danger zone
As promised, BOEMRE has begun allowing companies to resume drilling once they have demonstrated their ability to meet new regulations. Permits for 10 deepwater wells have been issued as of April 8. Thirty-three drilling rigs were operating before the spill.
The economic cost of the drilling slowdown—perhaps more significant than that of the spill itself—has not been quantified. Some jobs have been lost; it’s likely that, with oil prices high, more new jobs would have been created if not for the moratorium. Many workers have had their hours cut back, diminishing their buying power. Only 343 rig workers completed applications for grants from a fund set up to alleviate financial hardship caused by the moratorium.
Some companies have been eating into their reserves to hang on, meaning the full impact has only been delayed, since those balance sheets will have to be reinforced at some point. At least one affected company, Houston-based Seahawk Drilling, has filed for bankruptcy protection.
Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret cautions the state isn’t out of the danger zone. So far, however, it appears the early predictions of an economic apocalypse were overhyped. At least one expert says that perhaps the same could one day be said for the environmental impact.
“We need to go through a growing season—the full life cycle of the ecosystem—before we know absolutely for sure,” says Ed Overton, professor emeritus at LSU’s School of the Coast & Environment. “Initial reports look pretty encouraging.”
If oiled coastal marshes don’t grow back, coastal erosion will increase and the habitat of many tiny organisms that form the base of the food chain will be destroyed. But Overton says he saw a lot of what he calls “green regrowth” in a mid-March flyover. The oil was heavily weathered by the time it reached shore, he says, meaning many of the toxic compounds had evaporated away or dissolved into the water column.
“What really scares me is the uncertainty,” says Garret Graves, chairman of the state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority. The chemical dispersants used against the oil might disrupt the ability of shrimp to reproduce, he says, which would have a ripple effect throughout the gulf environment.
Graves says about 92% of all the heavily oiled shoreline occurred in Louisiana, and perhaps 1.5 million barrels of oil have not been recovered. He says it can take seven years to understand the full impact of an average oil spill. In this case, it could easily take 10 to 15 years, based on the current Natural Resource Damage Assessment regulatory process.
Louisiana was on track for its lowest rate of land loss in 80 years before the spill contaminated water, polluted sediments and pulled people away from restoration projects, Graves says.
“Those hopes have been dashed,” he says.
BP reportedly spent nearly $100 million on a “making it right” ad campaign, which Graves calls a “farce.” He says the state had productive negotiations with BP in October and November, and the company committed millions for seafood safety and tourism promotion.
“Since that period, we really have seen this withdrawal,” he says. “Here we are approaching one year [later], and we still have oil in our coastal areas. There have been no corrective actions taken to begin the restoration of the fish habitat, the bird habitat, addressing the water quality, trying to help out the oyster fishermen. That’s ridiculous, and it’s inexcusable.”
BP at least has come to the table, he adds, which is more than can be said for some of the other responsible parties.
The company is following guidelines set by the NRDA board of trustees, BP spokesman Curtis Thomas says, adding that the state has a voice in the process.
“BP will fund those activities,” he says.
Thomas says BP’s establishment of the Gulf Coast Restoration Organization proves its long-term commitment.
Responding to the catastrophe
“There was no doubt in anyone’s mind we were dealing with a catastrophic event from the start,” says retired Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, who led the federal response. “Nobody was lowballing any estimates, everybody knew this was serious, and everything we had was being moved in that direction,” adding that the needs “ultimately dwarfed even the requirements that were put forth in the response plan BP had created.”
Angelle says the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness “immediately stood up” and began holding twice-daily meetings. Doubts that BP really “had their arms around this issue” began to creep in early on, he says.
“The Coast Guard, to me, was somewhat late to the party,” Angelle says. “The responsible party [in this case, BP] being in command and control has proved to be very poor public policy on the feds’ part.” The Coast Guard seemed not to want to own the situation at first, he says, although it ended up owning the process nonetheless.
“The response plans that the feds had approved were wholly inadequate,” Graves says. “They didn’t expect any impact on the walruses and seals, when those aren’t even species that are in the Gulf of Mexico. … There’s recognition now that those plans were rubber-stamped as opposed to being reviewed.”
By law, oil spill response coordination is up to the federal government; the plans were not kept secret. They were available online before the disaster, and state officials apparently had input into their creation. The insignias of several state agencies were on the plans alongside those of federal and industry entities.
During the past year, Business Report asked various state decision-makers, including Gov. Bobby Jindal, how much input the state had into the pre-spill plans, why state officials didn’t notice the plans’ deficiencies prior to April 20 and why officials didn’t take it upon themselves to have resources such as boom and skimmers readily available in case of a spill.
Answers have not been forthcoming, except to stress that responsibility ultimately falls on the Coast Guard and BP.
“I don’t want to get fixated on the plans,” says Col. Michael Edmonson, State Police superintendent, who also oversees the Louisiana Oil Spill Coordinator’s office. “You can’t plan for everything.”
As BP tried to cap the well, federal officials tried to follow the existing response plan, even as it proved inadequate, while state and local officials attempted to adjust to the facts on the ground, Edmonson says.
Disagreements, sometimes over scientific questions, such as the efficacy of sand berms, sometimes over what resources were being deployed and where, often were loud and public, and often carried an undertone of political conflict between Republican Gov. Jindal and Democratic President Obama. Plaquemines Parish President Billy Nungesser, a Republican, became a breakout cable TV star through his tirades against BP and the Coast Guard and could parlay his newfound noteriety into a run for lieutenant governor.
Lafourche Parish was relatively fortunate; spokesman Brennan Matherne says oil mostly washed up on Fourchon Beach, not into the delicate marshland. He says the cleanup continues.
“You didn’t see a lot of media attention in Lafourche directed toward our working relationship with BP and the Coast Guard because there wasn’t anything to talk about,” Matherne says. “We actually had a good relationship.”
Lafourche Parish officials wanted more local fishermen put to work in the response. Otherwise, Matherne says, the command structure was clear and everyone stuck to their roles.
“We were pleased with the way we were able to work with many of the parishes,” Thomas says. “Other parishes had either different ideas of what would work for their areas or perhaps even different agendas.” When asked if “different agendas” refers to politics, Thomas wouldn’t elaborate.
Since the spill, several major oil players have formed the Marine Well Containment Company, which says its new response system can operate in depths of up to 8,000 feet and has storage and processing capacity for up to 60,000 barrels per day of liquids. The company’s equipment is stationed along the Gulf Coast, officials say.
The state and coastal parishes developed their own 7,800-mile boom plan after the spill, Graves says, once they grew tired of waiting for one from the federal government.
“We’re working to have boom, absorbants and skimmers all out there in the coastal area in warehouses, ready to go at a moment’s notice,” he says. Edmonson was unable to say April 11 if those resources now are in place.
Locals know the state’s unique coastline better than anyone, and Louisiana has some of the most experienced disaster-response professionals in the nation. So it stands to reason that locals should have more authority in any future response, state and some parish officials argue, rather than waiting for the responsible party or the Coast Guard to sign off on every decision.
The federal government is re-evaluating its processes, and if something similar happens again, Graves expects its approach would be different.
The realization process
It’s easy to demonize Big Oil, but society has an insatiable thirst for its products, which have to come from somewhere.
“We need to come to the realization that we do have a problem,” Angelle says. “Part of the process of getting over addictions is acceptance.”
Better to get our oil here than someplace like Nigeria, where lax rules put the environment at greater risk, or in countries that are less-than-friendly towards the United States, American producers often say. The U.S. government often supports dictators in the Middle East in the name of stability; if that stability crumbles, our foreign supply could be in jeopardy.
Oil found by drilling rigs doesn’t enter the market for years, but the slowdown might create a production lag that could tighten supplies down the road. Cheap energy fueled the rise of the American middle class, Angelle says, and spikes in energy prices generally precede recessions.
“High energy prices affect the least of our brothers more than anybody,” he says. “We need to be a country that is very robust in research and development for alternatives, and in the meantime we need to open up properties that we have in America.”
Jones is a lifelong Louisiana resident; he doesn’t need anyone to explain the oil industry’s importance to the state. But he’s clearly frustrated that Congress has not addressed the root causes of what happened that night one year ago on the Deepwater Horizon.
“I understand what drives politics; it’s mainly money,” he says. “Why should we move forward before we’ve uncovered and resolved the problems that caused this disaster in the first place?”
Gordon’s son Max will reach his first birthday next month. His older son, Stafford, now 3, occasionally asks for his father, or says, “My daddy’s in heaven.”
“I just want Michelle and the boys to be happy,” Jones says. “Maybe my brother’s death, and the death of the other 10 men, is going to cause the oil industry to implement changes that would hopefully prevent even one other family from having to endure the pain we’ve had to experience.”