Causes of Oil Rig Explosions
Factors That Increase the Risk of Offshore Explosions
In the Gulf of Mexico alone, about 6,000 oil and gas structures have been built since the early 1940s when offshore drilling started. Today, about 3,200 of these remain active. Oil rigs and platforms play a critical role in the energy industry, but they pose serious risks if they are negligently operated—and an explosion is the most catastrophic of these risks.
But what causes an oil rig to explode? It might be a single cataclysmic event or a combination of smaller incidents, but it will have an underlying cause. Uncovering this will also reveal who should be held accountable.
Here, we will consider the leading causes of oil rig explosions and what can be done to prevent them.
Inherent Dangers of Oil Rigs
Offshore oil rigs are engineered to drill into the seabed for oil or natural gas. The very nature of drilling for and storing oil and gas on these platforms introduces significant risks, primarily due to the volatility of the materials involved. These risks include:
Handling Volatile Substances
The primary function of oil rigs is to extract flammable materials like oil and natural gas. The process of drilling and the subsequent handling of these substances inherently increase the risk of oil rig fires and explosions.
High-Temperature Operations (Hot Work)
Various operations on oil rigs involve high temperatures, such as welding or cutting. These activities, known as “hot work”, can ignite flammable gases or vapors present in the environment.
Storage of Flammable Materials
Once extracted, oil and gas are temporarily stored on the platform. The presence of large quantities of these combustible materials in one location adds to the risk of a major fire or explosion.
Complex Machinery and Equipment
The intricate machinery used for drilling and processing is another potential source of ignition, especially if not properly maintained or operated. A malfunction could trigger an explosion or other catastrophe.
It is the responsibility of rig owners and operators to mitigate the dangers through stringent safety standards. The companies that own and lease oil rigs must:
Perform regular maintenance and inspections, ensuring that all equipment and machinery are in optimal condition to prevent malfunctions that could lead to explosions. Properly train all rig personnel. Workers must be trained in safe operating procedures, emergency response, and the handling of flammable materials. Implement safety systems and measures to detect and respond to leaks, fires, and other hazardous situations promptly. Adhere to regulatory standards. Complying with industry regulations and guidelines is crucial to maintaining a safe working environment.
How Blowouts & Fires Cause Oil Rig Explosions
Blowouts are one of the primary causes of oil rig explosions. A blowout happens when control over the pressure in the well is lost, leading to an unchecked release of oil or gas. Modern technology and improved safety measures have significantly reduced the frequency of blowouts, yet they still pose a risk. The Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010 is a prime example, where an underwater blowout triggered a catastrophic explosion and fire.
Factors contributing to blowouts can include equipment failure, improper drilling practices, or a failure in pressure control systems. Contemporary drilling operations use blowout preventers, which are designed to seal, control, and monitor wells to prevent such incidents. However, mechanical failures or operational errors can still lead to blowouts, particularly if the blowout preventer fails, which happened in the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
Fires on oil rigs are another major cause of explosions and can be triggered by various factors, including accidents, mechanical failures, or even arson. The presence of flammable materials like oil and gas in high volumes makes oil rigs particularly susceptible to fires. Even a small ignition source, such as a spark from electrical equipment or friction, can lead to a large-scale fire due to the abundance of fuel.
Firefighting on an oil rig presents unique challenges due to limited access, confined spaces, and the high volume of flammable material. Advanced fire suppression systems, regular safety drills, and strict adherence to safety protocols are essential to prevent and effectively manage fires on oil rigs.
Oil Rig Equipment Failure
Another cause of oil rig explosions is equipment failure. With all the work being conducted on oil rigs, crews rely on specialty equipment and tools. When this equipment doesn’t perform as it should, it can lead to serious accidents and injuries—including oil rig explosions. Even new equipment can fail if it has a design or manufacturing flaw or is misused.
The following equipment issues may cause oil rig explosions:
- Damaged cables or wiring
- Manufacturing or design defects
- Corroded pipes and equipment
- Improperly maintained machinery
- Deficient emergency response equipment
- Ineffective pressure control systems
Equipment failure can lead to an explosion, or it can make the effects more serious and difficult to get under control. For example, even though the Deepwater Horizon accident was caused by a blowout, the blowout preventer, the piece of equipment that was supposed to bring the situation under control, failed.
Oil rig owners and operators have a legal obligation to properly maintain all equipment and machinery. This includes conducting inspections, repairing issues that can be fixed, and replacing equipment or parts that are beyond repair. When an employer fails to schedule maintenance or repairs for equipment that is damaged or needs a tune-up, it may cause an oil rig explosion that harms workers and endangers the environment. They can be held liable for such failures.
Equipment manufacturers, oil rig owners, and all offshore employers may be held accountable for any type of negligence or intentional misconduct that causes an oil rig explosion. Our firm protects rig workers’ rights under the Jones Act, the Death on the High Seas Act, and all relevant maritime laws.
Negligence & Offshore Oil Rig Explosions
In November 2012, three contract workers lost their lives in an explosion on a Black Elk Energy rig. They had been hired to weld a pipeline together approximately 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. The pipe should have been clear of oil and flammable vapors, and the portable gas detectors at the site should have been working, but they weren’t.
The gas detectors weren't even turned on.
In less than two seconds, three oil tanks on the platform exploded; two landed in the sea and one struck a crane on the platform and landed on deck. Oil rained down from the tanks and ignited the platform.
This tragic incident serves as an example of negligence leading to an oil rig explosion. It pointed to a failure to follow proper safety protocols and offshore drilling regulations, a theme that is all too common in the oil and gas industry. In 2015, Department of Justice prosecutors filed criminal charges against Black Elk and two contractors, Grand Isle Shipyard and Wod Group. These charges included violations of the Clean Water Act and failing to follow proper safety practices.
Negligence can cause an oil rig explosion in such circumstances as:
- Neglecting to implement safety procedures can lead to dangerous conditions on an oil rig. This includes failing to maintain ventilation, not installing or using gas detection systems, and failing to use emergency shut-off systems.
- Negligence in maintaining equipment, such as drilling tools, electrical systems, and pressure control devices, can result in mechanical failures that trigger explosions. Regular maintenance is crucial for a rig's safe operation.
- Improper training of personnel can be extremely harmful. If workers are not trained in safety practices, the use of equipment, and emergency response, they may find themselves in danger or be unable to respond to a crisis.
- Ignoring or cutting corners on industry standards and safety regulations can increase the risk of explosions. This includes not adhering to protocols for drilling operations, handling of hazardous materials, and construction standards.
- Lack of supervision can lead to rig explosions. Without diligent oversight, unsafe practices may go unchecked. Supervisors play a crucial role in enforcing safety standards and ensuring that all operations are carried out correctly.
- Using substandard or defective equipment, whether due to cost-cutting measures or poor procurement processes, can lead to malfunctions and oil rig explosions, as well as a host of other serious incidents.
- Overlooking early warning signs of equipment failure or hazardous conditions can lead to situations where a small problem escalates into a major disaster. This was one issue noted after the Deepwater Horizon explosion.
Negligence serves as the foundation of fault in Jones Act claims, which can be filed by injured seamen. When offshore injuries, including those caused by oil rig explosions, are caused by the negligence of the rig owner, operator, or other interested party, they may be held accountable under the Jones Act.
The Common Denominator
Whether it was a piece of machinery that malfunctioned, an aging pipeline that exploded, or a safety inspection that was skipped, there is a common denominator in all oil rig explosions—and all offshore accidents. That common factor is companies’ failure to put safety first. From lax safety standards and carelessness to willfully ignoring safety standards or sweeping problems under the rug with the full knowledge that they could quite literally “blow up” in the company’s face, the failure to put safety at the forefront of offshore operations is the root cause of any explosion.
At Arnold & Itkin, we represent offshore workers and families nationwide after oil rig explosions and all maritime disasters. We are known as a leader in maritime law, having broken records time and again for verdicts and settlements obtained on behalf of our clients. With over $20 billion won and a commitment to doing everything in our power to help people who need it most, we are proud of our track record and intend to keep fighting to set things right. No matter what.