After Black Elk: Rig disasters a byproduct of America’s addiction to oil


Here’s a promised update on the oil rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana on Friday. First and foremost, our thoughts and prayers go out this Thanksgiving week to the loved ones of the two crew members — one confirmed dead, one still listed as missing — who were lost in the tragedy. This is the latest on that front:

Black Elk Energy, the owner of an oil platform caught fire Friday morning in the Gulf of Mexico 25 miles southeast of Grand Isle, announced Sunday that it is expanding its efforts with more dive crews and boats to find a worker who is still missing.

Divers privately contracted by Black Elk Energy found a body Saturday night near the production platform that the company says was one of the two workers missing immediately after the accident. 

There were 22 workers on board the platform when the fire erupted at 8:45 a.m. Friday. Nine were evacuated uninjured, 11 were injured and two were missing.

It was announced Sunday that one of the four men treated for major burns in the accident had been upgraded from critical to fair condition.

From an environmental perspective, the news of this new oil disaster in the Gulf set off all kinds of bells and whistles. In a bizarre coincidence, it happened on the day that most front pages in America were carrying news of the $4.5 billion criminal fine against BP for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill — a fine that is both the largest of its kind in U.S. history but hopefully the starting point for more extensive civil damages. What’s more, the founder of Black Elk Energy turns out to be a former BP executive. So for many, there was a panicked sense of deja vu when the news first broke.

Although nothing can mitigate the tragedy of the killed and injured workers on deck Friday when the explosion occurred, it’s a small token of relief for battered Gulf Coast residents that there was no noteworthy release of oil. Indeed, the differences in this Black Elk disaster as greater than the similarities: The rig was not producing oil at the time, and it’s located in shallow waters, not a massive deepwater exploratory rig in a mile of seawater as was the case with BP in 2010. Industry officials raced to assure the public that this was a simple industrial accident, pure and simple: The result of a worker using a torch to cut through a pipe that should have been drained of oil and vapor, but unfortunately had not been.

That does seem to be the case, but it glosses over a more fundamental fact: Offshore drilling for oil is a risky business in a number of ways. U.S. oil production — which many had been expected to decline in importance in a world where America increased its use of alternative energy while looking to reduce greenhouse gas pollution that causes global warming — is surprisingly on the rise. Indeed, the reason Black Elk doesn’t have much of a safety track record either good or bad because it is a relatively new concern, looking to exploit the opportunities created by new drilling technologies and by permanent high prices for a barrel of crude oil. Backed by hedge funds, Black Elk recently announced plans to drill 23 new wells.

Environmentalists and industry experts have valid concerns:

“The ink was barely dry on the BP settlement” when the accident occurred, said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “This accident is sad evidence of the obvious: The oil industry is a rogue industry with an accident problem that it refuses to address.”

Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who served on a presidentially appointed commission that examined the BP spill and the industry as a whole, said the new accident should be considered as another spur to move away from fossil-based fuels. “We need stronger safeguards and increased oversight to reduce the risk of accidents,” Beinecke said. “And we need to prioritize safer forms of energy that don’t threaten the lives of our workers and foul our waters. Until then, we’ll remain stuck on this collision course with disaster.”

Eric Smith of the Tulane Energy Institute is worried about new players cutting corners:

He said the new regulations and the increased time needed to get permits places additional pressure on smaller firms working in Gulf waters. That pressure is exacerbated by the comparatively low price the companies are receiving for oil and natural gas.

“One of the big concerns in the industry is whether we’ve got a viable offshore oil and gas industry in the way we’ve known it in the past, with all the new regulations,” he said.

The bottom line is this: We should take no great comfort in the fact that Friday’s accident did not result in a major oil spill. Americans — and more importantly, American policy makers — are still addicted to oil and other fossil fuels as the solution to our energy problems. Until we address that fact, breaking news alerts like the one that jarred us again last week are going to continue to be more common, less unusual. We can’t allow exploding oil rigs to become the new normal.

For the latest on the search for the missing Black Elk worker, please go to:

For a broader discussion of the environmental issues raised by Friday’s accident, please read:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2012 – All Rights Reserved

Add comment

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This