Coast Guard Capt. Peter Troedsson said he spoke with all the workers’ families about the decision to suspend the search before announcing it to the media.
“I’m a father and husband, and I have done this a few times before. It’s never easy. Your heart goes out to these people,” Troedsson said.
The Coast Guard says it will resume the search if any ships in the area see anything, but the workers’ chances of survival had seemed slim well before Friday afternoon’s announcement. “The time of reasonable expectation of survivability has passed,” Rear Adm. Mary Landry said.
What caused Tuesday’s massive blast off the Louisiana coast is unknown. As the search was ending, oil company crews were trying to clean up the environmental mess created by the Deepwater Horizon, which finally sank Thursday. The other 115 crew members made it off the platform, though four were critically hurt.
Federal regulators did not need this week’s explosion aboard the state-of-the-art rig to know the offshore drilling industry needed new safety rules: Dozens of deaths and hundreds of injuries over the last several years had already convinced them that changes were needed.
The U.S. Minerals and Management Service is developing regulations aimed at preventing human error, which it identified as a factor in many of the more than 1,400 offshore oil drilling accidents between 2001 and 2007.
The Deepwater Horizon was the site of a 2005 fire found to have been caused by human error. An MMS investigation determined that a crane operator on the rig had become distracted while refueling the crane, allowing diesel fuel to overflow. Records show the fire was quickly contained, but caused $60,000 in damage to the crane.
An MMS review published last year found 41 deaths and 302 injuries out of 1,443 accidents from 2001 to 2007, the majority of caused by human error and operational and maintenance problems.
As a result of the findings, the MMS is developing new rules that would require rig operators to develop programs focused on preventing human error, an area that hadn’t received as much attention in the past. The agency, which has yet to implement the new rules, also proposed audits once every three years.
Environmentalists say that while new technology touted by oil industry executives continues to improve, people still have to oversee those devices and human error remains a widespread problem.
“You can’t outlaw human error,” Richard Charter, a senior policy adviser with Defenders of Wildlife, who has been involved in drilling issues for 30 years, said of Tuesday’s explosion. “It’s one of the sidebar issues now emerging for the Horizon incident— these are common incidents and this was just a bigger one.”
Opponents of President Barack Obama’s plan for more offshore drilling, particularly off the East Coast, say the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon should be taken as a warning to slow the fervor to “drill, baby drill.”
“I would hope it would serve as another wake-up call on this issue that there is no such thing as safe oil drilling,” said Sara Wan, a member of the California Coastal Commission, a state regulatory agency. “Once that oil starts leaking in the ocean, that damage is irreversible. You just look at what happened with Exxon-Valdez—they’re still feeling the effects of it. There’s no real way to clean it up.”
Obama showed no sign of budging Friday. Spokesman Robert Gibbs said the president still believes increasing domestic oil production can be done safely, securely and without harming the environment.
“I don’t honestly think it opens up a whole new series of questions, because, you know, in all honesty I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last,” Gibbs said.
On March 31, Obama called for new offshore drilling in the Atlantic Ocean from Delaware to central Florida, plus the northern waters of Alaska. He also wants Congress to lift a drilling ban in the oil-rich eastern Gulf of Mexico, 125 miles from Florida beaches.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Friday that the Obama administration’s drilling plan would assess potential risks and benefits of any offshore site before drilling is pursued. No new lease sales are planned before at least 2012.
An undetermined amount of oil has spilled from the Deepwater Horizon, which is owned by Transocean Ltd. The sheen appeared to cover an area about two miles wide and eight miles long Friday afternoon, said Petty Officer Ashley Butler of the Coast Guard.
BP PLC, which leased the rig and is taking the lead in the cleanup, said it has activated an extensive oil spill response, including using remotely operated vehicles to assess the well and 32 vessels to mop up the spill.
Rear Adm. Landry said no oil appeared to be leaking from a well head at the ocean floor, nor was any leaking at the water’s surface. But she said crews were closely monitoring the rig for any more crude that might spill out.
About half a dozen boats were using booms to trap the thin sheen, which extended about seven miles north of the rig site. There was no sign of wildlife being affected; the Louisiana coast is about 50 miles away.
Strong winds were blowing generally from the south as a cold front approached from Texas. The passage of the front late Friday or Saturday was expected to shift winds to the north, which could push the sheen away from the coast. Crews were trying to contain what spilled and prevent any threat to the coast’s fragile coastal wetlands—nurseries for fish and shrimp and habitat for birds.
The Marine Spill Response Corp., an energy industry cleanup consortium, brought seven skimmer boats to suck oily water from the surface, four planes that can scatter chemicals to disperse oil, and 500,000 feet — 94.6 miles—of containment boom, a floating barrier with a skirt that drapes down under the water and corrals the oil.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson called for a congressional investigation of safety practices at offshore oil rigs. Nelson, a Florida Democrat who has led opposition to offshore drilling, said he asked the U.S. Interior Department to investigate and provide a comprehensive report on all U.S. drilling accidents over at least the last decade.
“The tragedy off the coast of Louisiana shows we need to be asking a lot more tough questions of big oil,” Nelson said. “I think we need to look back over 10 years or so to see if the record denies the industry’s claims about safety and technology.”
NEW ORLEANS LA April 21 2010 – An explosion rocked an offshore oil drilling platform, sending a column of fire into the sky and touching off a frantic search at sea Wednesday for at least 11 reported missing.
Most of the 126 workers on the rig Deepwater Horizon were believed to have escaped safely after the explosion about 10 p.m. Tuesday, Coast Guard Senior Chief Petty Officer Mike O’Berry said.
The rig, more than 50 miles southeast of Venice on Louisiana’s tip, was still burning at midday Wednesday. It was tilting about 70 degrees and threatening to topple into the water. There was no estimate of when the flames might be out.
Helicopters and boats searched the Gulf of Mexico for any sign of the workers who had not been accounted for.
“We’re hoping everyone’s in a life raft,” O’Berry said.
The Coast Guard said Wednesday that seven workers had been critically injured. Later in the day, West Jefferson Hospital in suburban New Orleans said it treated four people, three of whom had been released. The University of South Alabama Medical Center said it was treating one person in its burn unit and evaluating five others.
O’Berry said many workers who escaped were being brought to land on a work boat expected to arrive Wednesday evening.
When the explosion happened, the rig was drilling but was not in production, according to Greg Panagos, spokesman for its owner, Transocean Ltd. in Houston. The rig was under contract to BP PLC. BP spokesman Darren Beaudo said all BP personnel were safe but he didn’t know how many BP workers had been on the rig. Panagos said it’s still too early to know what caused the explosion.
“Our focus right now is on taking care of the people,” he said.
O’Berry said Coast Guard environmental teams were on standby in Morgan City, La., to assess any environmental damage once the fire was out.
According to Transocean’s website, the Deepwater Horizon is 396 feet long and 256 feet wide. The semi-submersible rig was built in 2001 by Hyundai Heavy Industries Shipyard in South Korea. The site is known as the Macondo prospect, in 5,000 feet of water.
The rig is designed to operate in water up to 8,000 feet deep and has a maximum drill depth of about 5.5 miles. It can accommodate a crew of up to 130.
A semi-submersible rig is floated to a drilling site. It has pontoons and a column that submerge when flooded with seawater. The rig doesn’t touch the sea floor, but sits low in the water, where it is moored by several large anchors.
Last September, the Deepwater Horizon set a world deepwater record when it drilled down just over 35,000 feet at another BP site in the Gulf of Mexico, Panagos said.
”It’s one of the more advanced rigs out there,” he said.
Panagos did not know how much the rig cost to build, but said a similar rig today would run $600 million to $700 million.
Workers typically spend two weeks on the rig at a time, followed by two weeks off. It is equipped with covered lifeboats with supplies to allow them to survive for extended periods if they must evacuate.
Total offshore daily production in the Gulf of Mexico is 1.3 million barrels.
Joe Hurt, a regional vice president for the International Association of Drilling Contractors, said working on offshore oil rigs is a dangerous job but has become safer in recent years thanks to enhanced training, improved safety systems and better maintenance.
“In recent years, there’s been a lot more money available and more money spent on training and safety,” he said.
Transocean has 14 rigs working in the Gulf and 140 worldwide. There are 42 rigs either drilling or doing workovers — upgrades and maintenance — in depths of 1,000 feet or greater in the Gulf of Mexico, according to the federal Minerals Management Service.
Since 2001, there have been 69 offshore deaths, 1,349 injuries and 858 fires and explosions in the Gulf, according to the agency, which did not break down the cause of the deaths, the severity of the injuries, or the size of the fires and explosions.