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10 years after the BP spill, dead rig worker's father fears lessons not learned

WWL-TV New Orleans logo WWL-TV New Orleans 4/20/2020 By David Hammer / Eyewitness Investigator
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Keith Jones is pretty sure his son, Gordon, was practicing his golf swing 10 years ago while he and the rest of the crew on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig was preparing to close out their work drilling a hole 3 miles into the seabed of the Gulf of Mexico.

It warmed Keith Jones’ heart to see actor Jonathan Angel swinging an imaginary golf club as he portrayed Gordon Jones in a 2016 Hollywood film called “Deepwater Horizon.”

Unfortunately, Jones can’t be sure that actually happened, for the same reason that his son was depicted in a major motion picture: The Deepwater Horizon exploded a few minutes before 10 p.m. on April 20, 2010, killing Gordon Jones and 10 other rig workers and setting off the largest offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

“One of my many regrets … is I miss being able to have seen how his career developed,” said Keith Jones, an attorney in Baton Rouge. “He was doing so well. There's no way to know.... He'll always just be the Gordon that I had. And not the Gordon that ... he would become, because those things we can't know.”

The crew called the Macondo oil well the “well from hell.” They had experienced repeated problems with gas pressure in the well, requiring several major changes in the design of the metal- and cement-lined well, as well as multiple delays that had made them late for another drilling project and put BP millions of dollars over-budget.

A series of missteps by the crew, mechanical failures and shortcuts ordered by BP engineers in Houston led to the catastrophic blowout. BP paid a record $4.5 billion in criminal fines for manslaughter and pollution crimes and more than $65 billion in civil penalties and compensation for engaging what a federal judge ruled was gross negligence and willful misconduct.

But Keith Jones says that fact has been lost over the years. He points out that the “Deepwater Horizon” film makes no mention of BP’s manslaughter convictions. And he fears the industry is in denial about offshore drilling dangers, repeating excuses BP engineers made during civil trials after the disaster.

“If you listen to their testimony… they ran the safest, most prudent well in the history of oil wells,” Jones said. “And we all know that that's the exact opposite of what happened. And that's the exact opposite of what they did. But maybe those guys tell themselves that to help them sleep at night. But the truth is that they did a lot of things wrong. Some things that led them to plead guilty to federal charges.”

Environmental activists, like Oceana’s Diane Hoskins, say the oil and gas industry and the federal government have not learned the necessary lessons from the BP spill. They point to recent changes softening federal safety regulations, especially those that required oil companies to monitor real-time drilling data on shore and to certify a rig’s blowout preventer.

The blowout preventer is a fail-safe mechanical device that is supposed to stop a blowout if a rig loses control of hydrocarbons in a well – a device that failed to protect the Deepwater Horizon because of battery and hydraulic failures and pressures that exceeded the contraption’s design.

“It’s absolutely terrifying that this could happen again,” Hoskins said. “And President Trump is simultaneously proposing to radically expand this industry to new areas while gutting some of the few safeguards that were put in place as a response, creating a recipe for disaster.”

Scott Angelle, Louisiana’s former lieutenant governor and secretary of Natural Resources, leads Trump’s offshore safety agency. He said updating the rules imposed by the Obama administration after the Deepwater Horizon disaster has made the industry safer.

“An independent study conducted by Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory, confirmed that rule updates have reduced the probability for failure,” Angelle said in a statement on the 10th anniversary. “Since 2017, BSEE has executed 112 new safety initiatives and 60 new environmental protection initiatives that improve the Gulf’s operations and ensure energy development takes place in a safe and responsible manner.”

Hundreds of experienced rig workers retired en masse in 2014 and 2015 amid a downturn in Gulf drilling. It was known as the “Big Shift Change.” Major oil companies, including BP, established or expanded state-of-the-art training centers to prepare a new crop of workers.

A significantly smaller BP – which divested $70 billion in assets before the oil market downturn in 2014 -- recently announced that it has emerged from a difficult decade in a stronger position. The company is touting plans to be a net-zero emissions, carbon-neutral company by 2050. It’s looking to invest more in cleaner fuels and renewable energy.

New BP CEO Bob Looney talked about the legacy of Deepwater Horizon during a Feb. 12 speech.

“Ten years on, we are a safer, stronger and more disciplined company,” he said. “We learned some hard lessons we will never forget. We learned we don't always have all the answers. We learned we don't always get it right. We learned we can't do everything on our own: Relationships, partnerships, friends really matter. We remember those lessons in this new decade, where the big challenge for BP is the one the world faces: Climate change.”

But watchdogs fear that government regulation hasn’t kept pace with these lofty goals from industry.

Hoskins said there aren’t nearly enough government rig inspectors at the Interior Department’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement. An exclusive WWL-TV investigation in 2014 found that a new center planned in Harahan for training government inspectors never got off the ground. Another WWL-TV investigation in 2015 found public records that showed the agency’s Environmental Enforcement Division wasn’t conducting basic enforcement tasks. The federal Government Accountability Office came to the same conclusion in its own investigation in 2016.

Gifford Briggs from the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association said his industry has stepped up to invest billions of dollars in safer operations and equipment to respond to spills. He said the Deepwater Horizon explosion and BP spill was an anomaly, not indicative of the industry’s dedication to its workers and the environment.

“There's no question that industry is in a better place today than we were 10 years before,” Briggs said. “But we've been in the Gulf of Mexico operating offshore since 1947. And, you know, when you look at it, broad scale, the industry has an incredible track record of safe operators, both from a personnel standpoint and an environment standpoint.”

Data compiled by environmental watchdogs at SkyTruth do show the number of Gulf oil spills steadily decreasing over the last 10 years, down from more than 2,600 spills reported in 2013 to fewer than 1,500 in 2019.

But the number of oil wells being drilled offshore has dropped even more during that time, from more than 350 to around 180. New Orleans-based Healthy Gulf compared the SkyTruth data with government well counts and found the rate of spills reported per well drilled each year actually increased, from about 7 spills per well drilled from 2011 to 2014, to an average of about 9 spills per well drilled from 2015 to 2019.

“I hadn't heard that statistic. That's sad,” Jones said.

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