Oil Industry Safety Record Blown Open

A pelican covered in oil from the BP leak is cleaned in Louisiana. (Photograph: Reuters)

Oil Industry Safety Record Blown Open

National Wildlife Federation says catalogue of oil industry accidents proves BP disaster in Gulf of Mexico is not a one-off

The oil industry has been responsible for thousands of fires, explosions, and leaks over the last decade, killing dozens of people and destroying wildlife and the environment across America, according to a report published today.

None of the individual incidents catalogued by the National Wildlife Federation comes close in scale to BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the worst environmental disaster in America's history. But the thousands of lesser offshore spills, pipeline leaks, refinery fires and other accidents demolish the industry argument that BP's ruptured well was a one-off, and that the oil and gas business has grown safer, the report's authors said.

"These disasters make it clear that the BP disaster isn't a rare accident," said Tim Warman, who directs the global warming programme for NWF, which calls itself the country's largest conservation organisation. "These are daily occurrences. These are daily incidents of not paying attention."

In a further grim reminder, the American midwest was in the throes of its own environmental disaster today, with a ruptured pipeline gushing gallons of oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River.

Enbridge Energy, which is Canadian-owned but based in Houston, said the spill may have reached 1m gallons. Federal government officials in Washington and the state of Michigan were struggling to stop the oil from reaching the Great Lakes.

In the Gulf of Mexico, meanwhile, while BP's oil well remains capped, a tugboat crashed into an abandoned well this week and set off a 100ft gusher of oil and gas.

The coastguard commander, Thad Allen, told reporters today that operations were switching from response to recovery, suggesting that equipment and personnel in the Gulf could be drastically scaled back in four to six weeks. "If you need fewer skimming vessels out there, there is going to be a levelling you need to consider," he said.

The report from the National Wildlife Federation drew on records from the Minerals Management Service, which regulates offshore drilling, and the Environmental Protection Agency, to come up with a figure of 1,440 offshore leaks, blowouts, and other accidents were reported between 2001-2007.

In addition to environmental damage, these caused 41 deaths and 302 injuries.

The safety record for onshore activities was even more dismal. Some 2,554 pipeline accidents occurred between 2001 and 2007, killing 161 people and injuring 576.

"Oil and gas is being produced in 34 states across the country and it is just not being regulated to the extent it needs to be," said Lauren Pagel of Earthworks, which monitors extractive industries.

At times, the accidents occurred far from industrial installations such as offshore drilling rigs or refineries. In one particularly gruesome incident from August 2000, three families with young children on a camping trip in New Mexico were consumed by a 500ft fireball from a ruptured pipeline. All 12 people were killed, and an official investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board later blamed the pipeline company for failing to detect or repair severely corroded pipes.

Four years later, a tanker truck lost control and crossed guard rails outside Washington DC, igniting 8,000 gallons of burning petrol on one of the country's busiest highways. "There was fire everywhere," the report quotes highway officials as saying. Four people were killed.

Among the causes for the poor safety record was the industry's relentless costcutting, despite record profits, said the report's authors, describing equipment failures, tank corrosion, and other signs of poor maintenance. The poor safety and environmental records were not restricted to the so-called Big Oil companies.

Enbridge Energy has had 400 separate spills between 2003 and 2008, spewing 1.3m gallons of crude into the environment, according to official records.

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