Offshore Worker Fatalities Underreported: Has Enough Changed Since the Deepwater Horizon?

After the Deepwater Horizon exploded and sank in April 2010, killing 11 workers and spilling 4 million barrels of oil into the ocean, the entire world saw the terrible consequences of the offshore oil and gas industry’s questionable safety culture. That December, the United States filed a complaint in District Court against BP and other defendants for their role in the explosion and resulting spill. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reached an unprecedented $5.5 billion settlement with BP for Clean Air Act violations as well as a settlement of up to $8.8 billion in natural resource damages.

To help prevent similar disasters in the future, the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) was created by the federal government. BSEE has been tasked with enforcing environmental regulations and improving safety in the offshore oil and gas industry, but some have begun questioning the agency’s efficacy – and with good reason.

A collaborative investigation by Drilled News, Southerly, and WWNO uncovered loopholes in reporting, inconsistencies, and missing data that “make the offshore industry appear safer than it really is.”

Why BSEE Is Underreporting Offshore Worker Fatalities

Even though offshore oil production increased by nearly 40% between 2011 to 2019, the number of offshore work hours tracked by BSEE dropped by more than 40%. The remaining jobs only become more dangerous with fewer qualified crew members to perform them. In 2019, BSEE reported its highest number of offshore worker fatalities since 2010. What’s interesting to note, however, is that these statistics do not match BSEE’s own raw data. Three more workers lost their lives that year: two were killed in a helicopter accident on their way to an oil rig, and one died from causes that authorities concluded were not job-related.

Offshore worker fatalities are underreported because:

  • BSEE does not count offshore worker deaths that take place in state waters, which typically extend three nautical miles from shore, except for in Texas and Florida, where state waters extend nine nautical miles from their coastlines. BSEE also does not require companies to report worker fatalities that happen in state waters.
  • The agency does not count worker fatalities that occur while in transport to and from fixed platforms, rigs, and other offshore facilities. This includes the two workers who lost their lives in a helicopter accident in 2019. It also includes 13 offshore workers who were lost when their lift boat, the Seacor Power, capsized on its way to a lease off the Louisiana coast in April 2021.
  • Deaths that are not considered “work-related” are also not counted by BSEE, even though workers have limited access to medical attention while working offshore, which could affect their chances of survival. From 2005 to 2019, 24 offshore workers lost their lives from causes that were determined to be unrelated to work. These workers’ average distance from shore? 60 miles.

BSEE Sued for Repealing Regulations Written to Prevent Oil & Gas Disasters

In 2019, environmental groups filed suit against BSEE and the Department of the Interior for repealing regulations that had been written after the Deepwater Horizon spill to prevent other disasters from occurring in the future. A similar suit was filed the following year, attempting to prevent drilling in deeper waters, which may increase the chances of a blowout or spill.

When deciding to repeal the regulations, which relate to well control and blowout preventer systems (the very systems that are meant to prevent oil spills), BSEE estimated that this action would save the industry $152 million over a period of 10 years. Instead of thinking – and acting – like a regulatory agency tasked with safety and environmental protection, BSEE appeared to think more like an investor or business entity.

Standing for Injured Offshore Workers

At Arnold & Itkin, we stand for injured offshore workers and families who have lost loved ones in maritime disasters. We represented one-third of the Deepwater Horizon crew, securing unmatched compensation on their behalf to ensure they and their families were taken care of for the rest of their lives. We fought for three widows of El Faro crew members who were lost in Hurricane Joaquin in 2015, finding answers and bringing them peace of mind in knowing that justice had been served.

Every single day, our offshore injury lawyers fight for good, hard-working people who would otherwise be ignored by agencies like BSEE or pushed aside by oil and gas giants like BP. Even when our own government cannot facilitate change in an industry that has put profits over safety for far too long, Arnold & Itkin stands for what’s right. To learn more, call (888) 346-5024. We’re here to help.

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