A month and a half ago an oil rig operated by the Chevron Oil Company burst into flames and eight wells began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico 12 miles off the Louisiana coastline. When the fire was discovered, the president of Chevron is said to have told his publicity chief, "Send the press away. We are going to put out the blaze, clean up any oil slick and then we will take reporters out in a boat and show them."
Perhaps oil companies once could behave in such a manner, and get away with it, but now the pollution fat is in the fire, and the oil interests are getting burned. The Government is getting fried, too, and as the grim trail of events in Louisiana clearly shows, both parties deserve the blistering.
It is important to appreciate the enormity of the Louisiana debacle. Secretary of the Interior Walter Hickel took one look and called it "a disaster compared to Santa Barbara. There is much more oil involved, more pollution over a wider area." Last weekend, 40 days after the fire started, there were still two wells running wild, and it was conservatively estimated that 30,000 gallons of crude oil were still flowing daily into the Gulf. At times the oil slick in the area has covered up to 70 square miles. And it has endangered two of the Gulf Coast's prime natural resources. So far, unseasonable northerly winds have kept the oil at sea, but the slick remains ominously near 450,000 acres of prime seed-oyster beds. In addition, young brown shrimp are moving just now from their hatching places far out at sea toward the bays and bayous of Louisiana where they develop and grow. They will swim under the slick, and no one knows if the oil, and chemicals being used on the oil, will affect the shrimp, or the people who eventually eat them.
What is evident, since the Chevron fire, is that the Federal Government's supervision of offshore oil drilling is both inadequate and lax. The U.S. Geological Survey employs only 17 inspectors for the 7,800 wells in the Gulf. In the area from Corpus Christi to Gulfport, Miss. there are some 1,800 different drilling platforms in federal waters (plus another 4,100 within the three-mile limit that are under state control). Each platform serves several wells and even wells within wells. It takes two federal inspectors about a day to examine a platform and considerable additional time to Check out the underwater systems connecting these platforms. Inspection boss Robert F. Evans says his men have been able to thoroughly check out only about 20% of the oil fields in the Gulf since the Government toughened its offshore drilling regulations last August following the Santa Barbara incident.
Even when inspections are made and violations discovered, there seems to be less than a determined effort by federal authorities to force oil companies to comply with the rules. Five days before the Chevron rig blew up, Supervisor Evans sent a letter to J. F. Hendrickson, chairman of a group of oilmen known as the Offshore Operators Committee. The chummy communication began: "Dear Bud," and noted, "A review of incoming reports from our field personnel indicates that progress is being made in installing needed pollution-control equipment offshore. However, there is still room for improvement.... There appears to be a certain hesitancy among some company personnel to rely on [pollution control] equipment for one reason or another. Needless to say, each operation is different, and it is our intent to regard each operation individually.... It is our intent that appropriate controls should be in service at all times. Overriding of any controls to insure continued operation is undesirable and could result in pollution...."
By law, oil companies are subject to a $2,000-a-day fine and/or six months in jail for each violation of drilling regulations, but Harlan Wood, the Department of the Interior's spokesman handling the Chevron affair, admitted that in his 13 years with the department he had never heard of an oil company being prosecuted for one of these violations. "Think of the time and money it would take to get the lousy $2,000 a day," he said. "If it is a major violation, the Government sometimes shuts down the platform until the problem is corrected. That cuts off the oil company's income." It also cuts off the Federal Government's 12½% royalty, which perhaps explains why such drastic measures are rarely taken. Evans says he has no idea of the number of violations found in a year, but that "only 10 or 15 platforms are shut down during a year, and sometimes it is not a whole platform, just a well."
One thing the Chevron fire showed is that violations of federal regulations on offshore rigs must be shockingly numerous. The fire broke out on Platform C in what Chevron calls its Main Pass area. The oil field covers 32,000 acres and includes 21 other platforms and 280 wells. A preliminary investigation of these made by federal inspectors soon after the blaze began revealed 147 violations. The platforms were immediately closed down, and the Government has permitted only four of them to resume operations. If a quick check showed 147 violations in 280 wells, one can only wonder how many violations there might be in the other 7,520 wells in Gulf Coast waters.
Ironically, Chevron's Platform C was one of the rigs that federal inspectors had checked out prior to the fire. No one will say now what the Government men found or did not find, except that at the time of the inspection there was a device known as a storm choke on the No. 6 well, the big producer on the platform. Since 1954 there has been a regulation requiring all offshore wells to have a storm choke, an $800 piece of equipment that cuts off the flow of a well when the rate of flow becomes abnormally high, as it might in a hurricane or a fire. But the chokes are a nuisance, especially on the Gulf where they tend to get damaged by sand. If an oil company requests the Government to waive the storm-choke requirement on a well, permission is usually granted. Chevron received five such waivers on wells on Platform C—but not on the now-infamous No. 6. Yet sometime between the inspection of the platform and the fire, the storm choke was taken out of No. 6. Even to take the choke out to clean it, which requires about an hour, companies are supposed to ask Government approval.
"Taking off chokes without permission has become a standard industry practice that the Government has condoned," Harlan Wood said candidly last week. Yet it was the removal of the storm choke from the No. 6 well for which Secretary Hickel rapped Chevron. "The storm choke, if operating, would have taken care of the fire, no doubt about that," Hickel said. "It never should have happened. And it wouldn't have, had the regulations put into effect last August been met."
Since the fire and Hickel's blast there are reports of extensive activities by the oil companies operating in the Gulf to put their rigs in order. Whether their new resolution persists after the slick from Platform C sinks out of sight depends on the Government. Hickel says he wants to double the number of inspectors as soon as possible and triple it over a two-year period, as soon as men can be trained to do the work.