They didn’t actually use the words “double-secret probation.”
But the most recent warning that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement sent to Houston’s Black Elk Energy raises the question of whether Dean Wormer from “Animal House” has come out of retirement to oversee safety in the Gulf of Mexico.
Black Elk’s operations were cited 315 times in the past two years for rules violations and risky procedures, yet that wasn’t enough to keep the company from operating there.
On Nov. 16, an explosion rocked Black Elk’s platform about 18 miles off the Louisiana coast. Two workers died, one is still missing, and others are critically injured.
“Black Elk has repeatedly failed to operate in a manner that is consistent with federal regulations,” bureau director James Watson said a few days after the accident.
Clearly, as Wormer once declared, it’s time for someone to put their foot down, but the bureau’s response is more of a toe tap.
In a Nov. 21 letter it gave the company until Dec. 15 to develop a plan for boosting the safety aboard its 98 platforms in the Gulf.
Through all those previous 315 violations, the bureau never demanded such a plan. Just last month, the bureau found that Black Elk “showed a disregard for the safety of personnel” after a platform accident that sent six workers to the hospital.
Yet it took, once again, the loss of life for safety to become a priority. Even then, the response is to come up with a plan that should have been in place all along.
The post-Deepwater Horizon safety culture in the Gulf is looking disturbingly similar to the pre-Deepwater Horizon safety culture in the Gulf.
What does it take for a company to actually be barred from operating in the Gulf? Apparently, a flagrant disregard for the rules isn’t enough. How high must the death toll go? How widespread must the injuries be? And how severe?
Of course, the bureau’s Wormeresque response to the Black Elk accident raises another, even more troubling, possibility: Black Elk’s violations could be the industry norm. Or the company’s safety record might be stellar compared with its peers.
We don’t know because the information remains cloaked in secrecy.
The bureau doesn’t routinely make available details of incident reports against specific companies. Instead, it offers broad statistics. We know, for example, there have been 141 injuries and 71 fires and explosions aboard Gulf facilities this year, but we don’t know the circumstances or who’s responsible.
The bureau’s “publicly accessible data is limited,” said Daniel Horowitz, managing director of the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, an independent agency that’s investigating the accident.
The result is an opaque picture of safety in the Gulf.
What we do know is that Black Elk paid $307,500 in September after an inspection found a gas leak on one of its platforms that the company didn’t fix for 117 days in 2010. That penalty was the biggest single penalty paid since March of 2011, according to data the bureau does reveal.
It was one of the few penalties that topped $100,000 during the same period, so Black Elk’s behavior would seem worse than others.
But the relatively small amounts of the fines – for all of last year, the bureau assessed almost $1.9 million for 30 violations, or an average of about $62,000 each – mean that running afoul of the bureau is simply the cost of doing business.
The fines aren’t significant enough to pass what I call the Prell test, borrowed from the old shampoo instructions – violate, pay, repeat.
What companies fear most, of course, is getting kicked out of the Gulf. BP never faced that fate despite causing the worst offshore spill in U.S. history. As for Black Elk, more than 300 violations, two deaths and an unknown number of injuries later, it’s on double secret probation.
Despite promises of reform and tougher regulation, drilling in the Gulf remains a tightly knit, industry-dominated fraternity.
Loren Steffy, firstname.lastname@example.org, is the Chronicle’s business columnist. His commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Follow him online at blog.chron.com/lorensteffy, www.facebook.com/LorenSteffypage and twitter.com/lsteffy.