The tragic accident in the Gulf of Mexico this week, with 11 missing since the explosion and resulting fire on the Transocean rig Tuesday night, is a reminder to the industry about how dangerous the work it does really is. But so far the environmental impact has been minor, and it’s too early to say whether the accident will lead to a rolling back of access to new offshore areas, as some in the industry fear will now happen.
US regulators estimate there are approximately 35,000 workers offshore in the Gulf of Mexico at any one time. There are 90 rigs drilling or working-over in federal waters of the Gulf of Mexico and about 3,500 production platforms - 978 of which are manned. That is a lot of people out there, and yet the accident rate is quite low. To date, there have been four deaths this year in the federal waters of the Gulf, and there were a total of five last year. While any death is too many, compared to other industries, analysts say, the statistics are remarkable.
Ken Medlock, energy expert at Rice University, believes the accident will certainly be scrutinized in Washington, because of its scale, but he notes the offshore industry’s strong safety record when compared to other industries, such as coal, which suffered yet another high profile accident on April 5, with the deaths of 29 workers in the US’ worst coal-mining accident in 40 years:
I really don’t think it’s going to result in a reversal of policy. Think of what happened in West Virginia. We’re not shutting down all the coal mines. You have to put it in perspective.
That said, it is important what happens from here on in. The rig sunk on Thursday, and officials say the possiblity for pollution is now much stronger. How well the industry contains any impact on the environment will be crucial. It could be lucky.
Despite fears that this could lead to a major oil spill, there are indications that no more oil is leaking into the water. The one mile by five mile sheen of crude oil mix that had been spotted near the site might well have been due to the fuel that had been feeding the fire. If so, the industry has dodged a bullet. It must now ensure it does not give itself any further opportunities to be shot at by those against opening further areas off the coast of the US to drilling.