Oil Industry Oversight Is A Job For Everybody

From 1975 through 1978, I worked for a committee in the U.S. House of Representatives on legislation designed to (among other things) prevent disasters like the tragic loss of human life and human injuries — and the ongoing, incalculable other losses that continue to mount following the April 20 explosion, incineration and eventual sinking of the semi-submersible offshore exploratory drilling rig “Deepwater Horizon” in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Working as a legislative assistant for the House Ad Hoc Select Committee on Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) was my first job after college. I was a political science major, and my involvement with the OCS Committee started as an internship.

I was ignorant and idealistic in those days. In 1978, the OCS bill became public law. We celebrated when the bill passed.

I left the committee for a job in another field, and then I stopped paying attention to oil and gas drilling. Been there — done that; you know how it goes.

Yet over 32 years, there have been many tragic leaks from exploratory and established undersea oil and gas drilling operations. I was unaware because I was not paying attention.

Also, during the Reagan years, much of the OCS bill’s toughness was gutted — but I did not know. I was busy.

On June 3, 1979, in circumstances eerily similar to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, the semi-submersible Sedco 135 F rig leased by the Mexican government-owned oil and gas company PEMEX was working the IXTOC I exploratory well off the west coast of the Yucatan Peninsula when it exploded, incinerated and sank. No loss of life was reported, but over the next 10 months 3.3 million barrels (a barrel is 42 gallons) gushed into the water, much of it ending up on the Texas coast.

The blowout was capped after two relief wells were dug. Two relief wells are planned for the Deep Horizon.

BP claims the relief wells will be dug by sometime in August. I hope they are right, but I am concerned. First, because I do not trust anything BP or any other oil company says.

Second, the PEMEX wells took 10 months in 1979 — and PEMEX was working in only 165 feet of water. BP’s Deep Horizon site is one mile beneath the surface.

Maybe undersea well-digging technology has really blossomed since 1979. Otherwise, good luck with those two wells.

Current estimates are that between 12,000 and 100,000 barrels a day are coming out of this hellish hole in the earth. No matter what measure is used, this disaster will undoubtedly overtake the PEMEX mess in volume, if that has not happened already.

Call it a gut feeling after reimmersing myself in this oily business after 30-plus years.

Reading a transcript of Congressional testimony from Transocean, (the world’s largest drilling rig owner and owner of Deepwater Horizon), BP (which leased the platform and owns the well), Cameron International  (manufacturers of the blowout preventer that failed to seal the well when it exploded) and Halliburton (providers of a variety of services to the natural gas and oil exploration and production industry for almost a century and responsible for cementing the well), reads like tragic comedy.

I didn’t watch the testimony on TV, so I could only imagine four chimpanzees seated together facing a Congressional committee while they combed each others fur for tasty fleas, scratched themselves abstractedly, and pointed at each other and everyone else in the room.

So far, it also appears that the people in the government who should have been monitoring and enforcing the law regarding offshore oil and gas operations were not performing their duties effectively.

I regret that while I was once so involved in the issues around this tragedy — even as a most junior staff person — I no longer took any responsibility as a citizen to just pay attention to what has been going on.

I think my citizenship is worth more.

Let’s hope we do a better job protecting our people and our resources in the years ahead.

Comments: Karen@towncourier.com