In an August 2021 piece published simultaneously in four independent media outlets (Southerly, Drilled News, WWNO, and Energy News Network), environmental journalist Sara Sneath reported that the US Department of Interior’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) underreported offshore oil and gas worker fatalities from 2005 to 2019. BSEE’s narrow reporting criteria excluded nearly half the offshore deaths that occurred, grossly distorting the level of danger inherent to the job.
The BSEE was created in response to BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010—the largest oil spill in US history—in an effort “to improve safety and enforce environmental regulations in the offshore oil and gas industry.” However, Sneath explained, BSEE’s “inconsistent and missing data, as well as loopholes that allow some fatalities to go unreported, make the offshore industry appear safer than it really is.”
In an analysis of BSEE data obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Sneath determined that “nearly half of known offshore worker fatalities in the Gulf of Mexico from 2005 to 2019 didn’t fit BSEE’s reporting criteria.” The agency excludes “offshore fatalities that occur in state waters,” “deaths that occur while workers are in transport to offshore facilities,” and “deaths that happen on offshore platforms that aren’t work related . . . even though the remoteness of offshore platforms makes it more difficult to seek medical attention.”
More alarming is the fact that the fatality rate appears to be rising. Sneath reported that “even with missing data on fatalities, the number of reported deaths in 2019 is more than the previous five years combined, despite a drop in the number of people working offshore.” A “shrinking workforce is one reason that the job is dangerous.” Sneath quoted Mathew Shaffer, a Houston-based lawyer who represents offshore workers: “We see injuries because there wasn’t enough crew. . . . A lot of those injuries are caused by the lack of manpower.”
Although corporate media, including the Washington Post, covered the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken offshore drilling regulations, none have reported this story. Following a massive pipeline leak off the California coast in October 2021, the Los Angeles Times published a related story about inadequate inspections of critical infrastructure. It noted that “critics in both the public and private sectors have been particularly harsh in their assessment of what they see as BSEE’s failures to act as a robust regulative authority.”
Sara Sneath, “Offshore Oil and Gas Fatalities Underreported by Federal Safety Agency,” Southerly, August 18, 2021.
Student Researchers: Vincent Santilli and Noah Orser (SUNY Cortland)
Faculty Evaluator: Christina Knopf (SUNY Cortland)