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New storm avoidance rules for offshore drillers after near-misses in last 2 hurricane seasons

The new rules require rig owners to report the time needed to evacuate ahead of a storm, known as the “T-Time.”

NEW ORLEANS — For more than a decade, Chris Pleasant didn’t want to talk about his near-death experience on the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, not even with his wife.

He was a supervisor on the Transocean-owned rig when it exploded 40 miles off the southeast Louisiana coast in April 2010, killing 11 of his crewmates and setting off the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history. Even after government investigations found safety devices Pleasant controlled on the bottom of the sea weren’t properly maintained and didn’t work as designed to prevent the deadly disaster, Pleasant backed his employer in legal proceedings.

He even testified on Transocean’s behalf during an unrelated legal dispute with an oil company, helping it win a $185 million settlement.

But now, Pleasant said he’s reached his limit. He’s not only speaking out for the first time, but he’s suing Transocean for more than $1 million, claiming the company’s negligence on another drillship 10 years later caused him pain and suffering, lost wages and nearly led to another deepwater disaster.

This time, the issue was how Transocean managed the safety of its Deepwater Asgard drillship when it was in the path of Hurricane Zeta, in October 2020. Lawsuits filed by Pleasant and other Asgard crew members allege Transocean did not move quickly enough to get out of the storm’s path and remained connected to the deep sea well it was drilling at the time, all to maximize profits.

“I don't want anybody else to go through what I've been through on the Deepwater Horizon and the Deepwater Asgard because of profits,” Pleasant said in a recent interview with WWL-TV.

Transocean denies the allegations in court documents, claiming quickly changing weather forecasts caused it to miss its evacuation window. The captain of the ship also testified in a deposition that the oil company, Beacon Offshore Energy, paid Transocean the same rate during a storm whether it stayed latched to the well or not.

Company attorneys also questioned Pleasant during his deposition about why it took him two weeks after the storm to report being injured, casting doubt on whether the longtime employee from Monroe, La., was really injured and implying he was looking for a payday at the end of his career.

But his Houston-based attorney, Kurt Arnold, whose firm Arnold & Itkin represents several workers who claim they were injured in recent hurricane-related accidents offshore, says there's a simple explanation for Pleasant's delay.

"The offshore industry has a toxic culture that minimizes injuries, under-reports incidents, and pressures workers to downplay their injuries to preserve their jobs," Arnold said. "And many types of injuries produce chronic symptoms that manifest and worsen over time."

But the larger concern is whether drilling rigs are following proper safety protocols in the face of stronger and more common hurricanes. Transocean is not the only drilling company facing questions about its storm readiness and avoidance procedures. In August 2021, the Noble Globetrotter II, a mobile floating drilling rig owned by Noble Corp., got caught in Hurricane Ida’s path. Noble downplayed the incident in press releases until crew members started posting harrowing videos and photos on social media of the rig listing badly and taking on water.

“At 3 a.m. I woke up to everything in my room slamming across from one side to the other,” said Steve Cochran, the assistant driller on the Noble Globetrotter II, in an interview with WWL-TV.

Cochran said he was thrown against the wall, and he had to use a towel to wipe water away and climb back to his bed on the nearly vertical floor of the cabin.

“The thoughts are going through your head like, ‘This is it,” he continued. “Like ‘How’s this rig not about to flip over right now?’”

With near-misses in each of the last two hurricane seasons, the federal offshore safety agency – an Interior Department agency called the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement -- established new oversight rules for this hurricane season, requiring rig owners to report the time needed to evacuate ahead of a storm, known as the “T-Time.”

In both cases, T-Time reports from the drilling companies showed the rigs had more than enough time, with a 20% buffer built in for complications, to safely move each rig out of danger once weather forecasts showed them in the cone of uncertainty of the storm’s projected path. But in both cases, the crews ended up missing their windows to leave and decided to ride out the storm, with heavy drilling equipment still dangling hundreds or even thousands of feet in the churning seas below them.

With that in mind, BSEE will also require Gulf operators to send regular updates of how each of their rigs are progressing with the lengthy process of safely shutting in an oil well, lifting heavy equipment off the sea floor and getting out of the path of a storm.

The Offshore Operators Committee, a non-profit technical advocacy group, said it collaborated with BSEE, operators, drilling contractors and the Coast Guard to establish best practices for improving communication for hurricane avoidance.

Noble says it’s ready to comply.

“Over the course of the last nine months, Noble has taken a leadership role in working with government agencies and industry trade associations to ensure offshore operations are implementing lessons learned to improve efforts to protect the environment and keep the men and women in our industry safe,” Noble spokesman Craig Muirhead said.

The Coast Guard backed up the company’s claims that the Globetrotter II was always seaworthy. The area that took on water in the videos is designed to do so and the rest of the ship was properly sealed off by water-tight doors. Noble also provided injured crew a chance to leave after the storm on helicopters, but Cochran stayed on board. Court records show he did not report being injured until more than a month after the incident, when he hired Arnold & Itkin and joined other Globetrotter II crew members seeking damages.

Still, an investigation by BSEE and the Coast Guard was released in May that found Noble and Shell, the oil company that hired the rig, made "poor operational decisions" by "waiting on notification of a direct path (for Ida) rather than following" clear schedules for shutting in the well and leaving the area.

Shell said in a statement that it accepted the findings by BSEE and the Coast Guard, adding “the detailed learnings will help us and our contractors continue to improve operational planning and safety during hurricane season. Shell’s top priority remains the safety of our people, the environment, and our assets.”

A separate incident report by BSEE found several days went by before of the storm’s arrival without Noble making any progress in evacuating. The BSEE report also blasts Noble for making a last-moment crew change that "delayed an operation already hours behind schedule and resulted in a failed evacuation."

Cochran said he arrived a little more than a day prior to the storm on a helicopter that was also being used to evacuate other rigs in the area, a fact confirmed by the BSEE investigation.

“When I landed at 3 p.m. on Friday they already knew it was too late,” Cochran said. Asked what he could do about it, he said, “Get to work. That's all you can do.”

A lot can go wrong during a rig’s evacuation process, especially in worsening tropical-storm conditions. It can take days to plug up a freshly drilled oil well, test the cement seals and “packers” used to make sure oil and gas can’t escape, and then lift a steel riser pipe that can descend a mile or more through the sea with a massive, multimillion-dollar piece of equipment attached to the other end, the Lower Marine Riser Package.

The LMRP is a stack of steel pipes, control mechanisms and wires that latch to the top of the blowout preventer, an even larger metal structure that uses valves and clamps to open or close the well at the sea floor.

In both the Transocean and Noble cases, the rig crews ran out of time to raise their LMRP before gale-force winds hit, leaving them both in tenuous situations.

In the Transocean case in 2020, the rig was still attached to the well when Hurricane Zeta passed close by, and the storm blew the ship so far off-center that the riser pipe nearly snapped. As the subsea supervisor in charge of the LMRP and blowout preventer, Pleasant had to hit an emergency disconnect button. It worked, but the storm then blew the Asgard into shallower water and the LMRP crashed into the seabed, causing major damage. At the other end of the mile-long pipe, the riser’s metal joints banged against the ship’s hull, and Pleasant feared it could puncture a hole and cause the ship to take on water.

“If we took on water, we would have sunk,” he said.

The Noble case in 2021 was similar, but the crew got a little further along and had already unlatched from the well before Hurricane Ida arrived. The LMRP was still dangling on the riser pipe about 500 feet below the rig, however, and the Noble Globetrotter II could only go about 3 knots, a third its normal speed. It couldn’t outrun the storm, and the riser and LMRP snapped off and fell to the bottom of the Gulf.

Three crew members reported injuries immediately, and the BSEE and Coast Guard investigation found 88 barrels of miscellaneous oil from the rig polluted the Gulf.

CORRECTION: The video originally accompanying this story misidentified the voice of a supervisor onshore who told the Deepwater Asgard crew to stay latched to the well during Hurricane Zeta. The voice should have been identified as Transocean manager Tyson Welch.

The video also quoted Chris Pleasant saying he had been "blackballed" for speaking out. It is important to clarify he is still employed by Transocean while his lawsuit against the company is pending. He hasn't sought other employment, but he said he doesn't think he'll be able to get another job in the oil field now that he's spoken out.

RELATED: Disastrous Deepwater Horizon explosion was 12 years ago

RELATED: Government report blames forecast, rig owner for drilling damage during Hurricane Zeta

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