Thursday afternoon, for a brief second, it seemed like there was to be yet another disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Five months after the Deepwater Horizon exploded, killing 11 people and causing the largest oil spill in the history of the US, there was another accident on an oil rig. A Mariner Energy platform 100 miles off the coast of Louisiana had an explosion, sending 13 workers into the ocean and causing one to be injured. Luckily, the platform’s seven wells had been shut down shortly before the fire for maintenance, so no open well was leaked into the Gulf. Even with reports circulating of a mile-long oil slick around the platform, in a post-Deepwater Horizon context there is a distinct feeling of catastrophe averted.
Still, the incident has raised serious questions about the safety procedures of the oil industry in the Gulf. Think Progress reports that Mariner Energy has been fined twice this year already, totaling $55,000, and a further $30,000 back in 2007. Mariner’s new owner has been cited for $1.74 million in fines since 1998, including a $435,000 fine this year for removing a piece of a sump system which “could not automatically maintain oil at a level sufficient to prevent discharge into the Gulf of Mexico.”
Speaking to the Associated Press , Charlotte Randolph, president of the Lafourche, La., Parish was quick to defend the company. “The people were safely recovered. The oil did not spill. It’s everything the Deepwater Horizon was not,” she said. Yet neither record is particularly inspiring, and indeed the reactions of the oil industry do not reassure either as to the likelihood of further accidents. Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University in Texas, casually told the AP that “there’s over 100 fires in the Gulf in a given year. Were it not for the BP incident this would receive very little coverage,” Bullock said.
Nevertheless, the accident has only served to remind people, particularly in the Gulf region, of the precarious fragility of the oil industry. In the midst of the Deepwater disaster, the Obama administration was quick to set a six-month ban on deep water drilling. With the November expiration of that deadline coming up soon, this accident has come at precisely the wrong time for those in the oil industry.
Yet as well as the environmental issues, it also raises larger questions about the unwillingness of governments state and federal to legislate for the good of the workers who are risking their lives on the coast to no great reward. Louisiana is, after all, one of the notorious “right to work” states and possesses no legal minimum wage.
In the wake of that other great tragedy for Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina, the treatment of workers re-building the city was nigh on appalling. Immigrant guestworkers paid up to $5000 to work in the country, only to find themselves imprisoned. The Huffington Post tells the story of one:
He and others had been brought to Louisiana as guestworkers on H2B visas. They were working as welders, building barges in a Louisiana shipyard. They had been promised good jobs and decent pay by recruiters in Veracruz. They plunged their families into debt for a chance at an American dream. When they arrived, they were locked into a labor camp on company property, surveilled by armed guards, and forced to work in horrific conditions for subsistence wages. The company seized their passports to make sure they didn’t escape.
In the Deepwater Horizon clean-up, once again, treatment of workers has been poor. As Stephanie Hepburn at Americas Quarterly reports:
One consistent labor violation during the post-Katrina cleanup that continues to be an issue is worker safety. According to the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, workers performing the BP cleanup have not been provided with appropriate protective gear even though BP has agreed to ensure that workers are properly trained in hazmat protocol and are provided all necessary equipment.
Although they are given gloves and suits, cleanup workers are not provided with any respiratory protective gear by BP despite the toxic chemicals involved. What’s worse, fishermen have been told by their BP superiors that they will be fired for wearing a respirator or any safety equipment not provided by BP.
The question, therefore, is how long before there is another disaster in the Gulf? How many other platforms out there? The current ban has shut down drilling on only 33 ocean wells, but according to the American Petroleum Institute, there still are more than 7,300 active leases in the Gulf of Mexico, 58 percent of them in deep waters.
And even if environmental catastrophe is not a possibility, how many of the people working on those platforms are working in unsafe work environments? How many of those regulating the industry are ignoring the labor violations going on in the Gulf, out of greed or sheer desperation? In Louisiana, even with the devastation of the oil spill wreaking havoc on the fishing and restaurant industries, everyone knows that big oil is the only game in town, no matter the cost.