Oil and gas firm with troubled record hosts safety conference

An oil and gas producer with a poor safety record, including a deadly platform fire in 2012, gathered its vendors Wednesday for a conference on how to provide a safer environment in the Gulf of Mexico, where workers face a fatality rate seven times higher than in other industrial workplaces.

“Today is about bringing together operators and contractors to promote a safer culture in the Gulf of Mexico …,” John Hoffman, chief executive officer of Black Elk Energy, said before the conference.

More than 200 service company representatives attended the conference put on by Black Elk Energy, which operates aging production platforms in the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

A Black Elk Energy platform at West Delta 32 caught fire on Nov. 16, 2012, during maintenance operations while the platform was shut in. The fire killed three Filipino welders and injured other workers, some of whom returned to help fight the fire

Tad LeBlanc, Black Elk Energy vice president of health, safety, environment and compliance, who provided a brief overview of the accident, said piping that was supposed to be gas-free and isolated from a fuel source was not.

A photo showed large fuel tanks that melted in the heat, and a crane boom whose tip limped to the production deck floor.

Asked later if a language barrier with contractors might have contributed to the accident, LeBlanc said he could not comment because of ongoing federal lawsuits by families of the workers.

Black Elk Energy has been a Gulf of Mexico operator for just a few years. It uses a strategy of buying decades-old “legacy” properties to rework the wells and extract what oil and gas remains.

In 2010, 2011, and 2012, the years the company has operated in the Gulf of Mexico, Black Elk Energy was one of the most penalized producers, according to records with the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

In 2012 alone, BSEE officials conducting 140 inspections ordered nine shutdowns of Black Elk platforms and 68 partial shutdowns because of safety or environmental concerns, according to BSEE records.

LeBlanc said Wednesday the company had made strides in improving its record with the federal regulatory agency, though he couldn’t provide figures.

Rick Baker, a Black Elk safety official, said the company took a hard, deep look at its practices after the 2012 fire, and worked with safety companies and the BSEE to improve things.

Hoffman, Baker and other Wednesday spoke of the need for all companies to change the work culture in the Gulf of Mexico, where safety-first practices were not always observed.

“It’s going to require a change to our culture,” said Jeff Ostmeyer, with the Center for Offshore Safety.

According to a study published April 26, oil and gas workers in the Gulf of Mexico were seven times more likely to die in industrial accidents than workers on land.

The study, conducted by Bureau of Labor Statistics for publication by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at offshore fatalities after the BP disaster in 2010. Researchers looked at the years 2003 through 2010, and concluded that 128 workers, all male, died in accidents. The figure includes the 11 rig workers who died in the Deepwater Horizon explosion, but not the three welders who died in the Black Elk fire last year.

The report showed that more than half of the fatal accidents occurred during transportation, with 49 dying in helicopter crashes, and 16 dying on boats.

Fires and explosions killed 17 workers in the eight-year span, according to the report.