By John Crace, Guardian
Around 10 p.m. on Tuesday, April 20, an explosion ripped through the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico, 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. Jed Kersey’s son, John, had just finished his shift and was asleep when the alarm sounded and the electricity went off. He raced upstairs and made it to a lifeboat.
"He said it was like a war zone," his father said later. "They waited for as many people as they could …"
Eleven people, all of whom were working on the "rig floor", the relatively small area where drilling operations are actually conducted, died in the blast; a further 17 were injured, two critically. The remainder of the 126-strong crew were safely airlifted back to the U.S. mainland. It could have been worse, though.
Coast Guard Petty Officer Kevin Fernandez was on board the first rescue helicopter, reaching the scene 15 minutes after the explosion. Flames were rising 500 feet into the air from the "semi-submersible" rig — the visible portion of which sits above vast underwater pontoons. "I was kind of expecting more fatalities," he said.
Two days later, the rig sank, with oil spilling out into the sea. It still is, around 5,000 barrels a day, as efforts to stem the flow from the seabed with robot submarines have so far proved unsuccessful, and the clean-up operation has barely got beyond the first test-burn to try and ignite some of the surface oil. The extent of the environmental impact is expected to be severe, with a state of emergency having been declared last night in Louisiana.
Precise information on what went wrong is hard to come by. There is some confusion about exact timings. One Coast Guard reported an explosion on the rig three hours before the one that started the fatal fire. Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Mike O’Berry told a local news agency that according to their internal reports, the first blast was reported at 7 p.m., but the rig did not sound the alarm for help. At present it is unclear if the two incidents are related, but preliminary investigations suggest the second was an old-fashioned blowout, caused by an uncontrolled release of gas or oil forcing its way up the well pipe and setting fire to the operating and living quarters on the platform above the sea.
This is not as rare as you might think. At the time of the incident, rig workers were cementing the wellhead, the component used to control the pressure flow to the surface, to the ocean floor — an operation frequently linked to blowouts in the past. The U.S. Minerals Management Services (MMS) has been concerned about the practice of cementing for some time; its 2007 study revealed that 18 out of 39 blowouts between 1992 and 2006 were associated with cementing.
Here’s the thing. The oil companies would like us all to believe that drilling is essentially an entirely safe, environmentally neutral way of tapping the world’s natural resources.
We may have come a long way from some of the practices of the early `70s, when it was not unheard of for riggers and roustabouts to conceal severed fingers and broken limbs from management in order to claim their safety bonus at the end of a three-week shift, but the rigs are still no place for the faint-hearted.
You can have all the health and safety regulations you like, but you cannot legislate for human error. And 12 hours’ daily hard labor for a minimum of two weeks straight, often in atrocious weather, means mistakes happen.
The MMS reports that there have been 69 deaths, 1,349 injuries and 858 fires and explosions on offshore rigs in the Gulf of Mexico alone since 2001. In almost every case, the finger has been pointed at a lack of communication and failure to observe correct procedures, rather than equipment malfunction. And that’s just the Gulf. According to The Complete Offshore Rig Employment Handbook, there were 766 rigs drilling in all parts of the globe — more often than not the most dangerous and inhospitable parts — in January 2010, and accidents are a part of life.
Major disasters, such as Piper Alpha in 1988 in which 165 men died, and Deepwater Horizon may grab the headlines, but working on a rig is always attritional.
As Ron Edwards, an oil worker with 20 years’ experience, writes in the same book:
"Rigs sink. OCECO’s Ocean Ranger sank during rough seas southeast of St John’s, Newfoundland. More recently Global Marine’s Java Sea sank off the coast of China while trying to weather out a typhoon. There were no survivors.
"When your appointed time has come, whether it be offshore or in the safety and comfort of your home, then it has come. Why worry about it?"
In short, don’t be a wimp. Not that you’ll find many wimps out on the rigs. Comparatively few of those who work offshore — the drillers, scaffolders, crane operators, catering staff, divers, roughnecks (junior drillers) and roustabouts (all-purpose maintenance workers) — last much into their 40s in the job. Many come from the military, a fair few are ex-cons, and the rest are adventurers prepared to work 12-hour shifts cooped up in a steel shell in the middle of nowhere in exchange for a starting salary of up to £40,000 for only working half the year in two-week-on, two-week-off shifts. Oh, and academic qualifications are only an optional extra for entry-level jobs.
Everything on the rig is geared to one thing; extracting as much oil and gas as is humanly possible. The rig operates 24/7 in two 12-hour shifts, and everyone is a cog in maintaining the flow of black gold. There are no frills, no sops to home comforts: the sleeping quarters are functional, no more. The food is good, mind; but then a well-fed crew works better than a hungry one.
It used to be just a man’s game, but now you’ll find the occasional woman offshore. If anything, they have to be even tougher than the men. Take Leanne, a South American woman based in Aberdeen who has spent two years working in the North Sea.
"If a female cannot cut it or accept the language or the way the guys behave, then they must up and chuck," she writes in the Rig Employment Handbook. "Although I found the guys generally well behaved, at times I came across a fella from the old school who hated females offshore. Some I managed to swing around and accept me and I didn’t bend over backwards for anyone. After a tongue-lashing from me, I guess they were feared not to be a wee bit friendlier … kidding!" Or possibly not.
In the `80s, the writer Al Alvarez spent several weeks out in the Brent Field area of the North Sea as research for his book about the oil industry, Offshore.
"I flew out in heavy fog with the helicopter barely 20 feet above the sea so the pilot could see where we were going," he says now. "And then suddenly there it was, this enormous structure looming high above us with its flag of flame. There was something awe-inspiring and humbling about this sophisticated industrial village on stilts in the middle of nowhere. It made me feel proud to be human.
"And I came to love the men. Yes, many of them were flawed. Their love lives were a disaster, they threw money around when they were back onshore, and some did go stir crazy when the helicopters couldn’t get out to take them off. But everyone I met used to look out for each other. There was a real sense of camaraderie. Everyone just wanted to get the job done and they were all too knackered for any tensions to erupt. I came away thinking that in a parallel life, it’s a job I’d have liked to do myself."
Alvarez might have thought twice about that if he had been able to read Paul Carter’s Don’t Tell Mum I Work on the Rigs — She thinks I’m a Piano Player in a Whore House. Published in 2006, this is the book that offshore workers regard as the bible that tells it like it is. Carter has worked everywhere, from the comparative orderliness of the North Sea to the semi-lawless platforms off Africa and in the far east. You get the feeling he’s earned every penny.
He has faced kidnap and ransom in the Philippines:
"It happens a lot in the oilfields, especially in South America, Africa and parts of Asia," he says in the book. "The extremists know they will get paid the insurance money and so prefer to grab oil people whose insurance costs go up as more and more get kidnapped."
And he’s been close to death:
"Finally the two pipes looked lined up, separated by only six inches and the driller’s beer gut hanging over the inside rim of the static pipe. The driller had his back to the assistant driller, who let the loose pipe down and they lined up, slamming together with a loud metallic bang. The driller staggered back but at first none of us realized what had happened. His arms were doubled over his belly, then he straightened up, dropping the contents of his abdomen on the floor at his feet. He had disembowelled himself and was dead within seconds."
Yet Carter kept going back. Partly, you suspect, because he was never able to hang on to the money he made — "When I got off a rig, I’d stand in front of the big board at Changi International Airport in Singapore and choose a flight to wherever. I’d take off and f*** around in Tunisia for a month, returning broke to a rig with only some obscene Polaroids and one too many drunken stories" — but also because there was something addictive about the lifestyle, both the uncompromising toughness of the day-to-day living conditions and the ability to upsticks at a moment’s notice for another rig on the other side of the world.
In many ways, working offshore is the physical expression of the archetypal existential dream of being able to define one’s own life, by grabbing what you can with your own hands and putting two fingers up to anyone who crosses you. It’s a dream that many have, but few last that long; it’s a career with a high drop-out rate, many workers lasting only a couple of years.
But it’s also a career with opportunities. There are usually vacancies somewhere in the world, and the insatiable desire for fuel ensures that oil companies go to greater and greater depths — literally — to find it.
It’s a game we all know can end only in tears — either when the oil does finally run out, or in disasters such as Deepwater Horizon. Yet it’s a game everyone is hellbent on playing to the bitter end.
Count on it: there will be another Deepwater Horizon some time soon.
(Republished with permission of the Guardian)