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Original Issue


In the wake of a blazing well, spilling oil menaces the Louisiana coast; only the north wind has saved the land

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.

But the possibility of nonexistent $2,000 fines would hardly disturb the oil companies. What is disturbing them is the sudden emergence of pollution as a national issue—and perhaps even a national fad. Commander David H. Dickson of the Coast Guard office in New Orleans says, "A couple of new oil slicks are sighted in the Gulf each day. We get a really heavy one once or twice a week, and these can cover areas up to 32 square miles. We keep an eye on them, and if they don't come ashore they aren't a concern; they break up with the wind and wave action in maybe a week." But now there is a public outcry every time an oil slick hits close to home. In addition to the furor by public, press, conservationists and embarrassed Government officials, Chevron last week found itself hit with multi-million dollar legal actions by another industry. Nine shrimp fishermen filed a $75 million damage suit against Chevron in Federal District Court in New Orleans charging pollution from the slick could cause "permanent and substantial damage" to the shrimping industry. A similar suit, asking for $31.5 million in damages, was filed by the oystermen.

So far no seafood damage is evident, but investigators of the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration hinted broadly last week that Chevron was using an excess of chemicals to dissipate the slick, and it is true that surprising efforts were being made to keep the pollution inspectors away from the oil-slick area. It was chemicals that caused the ecological disaster in English and French waters following the wreck of the Torrey Canyon. Because of this, Chevron has been authorized to use limited amounts of chemicals, and only to provide safe conditions under the work platform from which their men are fighting the wild wells. But Federal Water Pollution Control Administration officials estimate that Chevron, in the name of safety, is pumping at least 550 gallons of chemical concentrate into the seas daily, enough to dissolve 21,000 gallons of oil. Nobody knows what the chemicals will do to sea life, and, indeed, nobody knows what the chemicals consist of. The manufacturers are refusing to provide samples to government agencies for analysis, the Coast Guard is keeping inspection boats out of the area of the wild wells, and Chevron, aware that silence is golden, is hardly admitting it has oil wells in the Gulf.

The fire that is now pitting government agency against agency, and industry against industry, broke out in the production room of the Platform C rig on Feb. 10. It apparently was caused by a mechanical breakdown, though no one knows for certain because no men were on the platform at the time. Eight of the 12 wells caught fire and a towering flame shot 40 feet into the air. The roar of the fire was deafening, parts of the rig melted and dropped off into the sea, pipes contorted and shriveled, black smoke billowed thickly and a brown stain of oil began to spread from the foot of the structure. The fire burned out of control for a month; finally on March 10 it was extinguished when a 400-pound charge of dynamite was exploded over the remnants of the platform. Until then, the oil seepage had been minimal because most of the oil burned. During the month of the blaze Chevron assembled pollution-fighting equipment—barges, tugs, booms, helicopters, hay and even an arsenal of shotguns, blank shells and firecrackers, which company spokesmen said would be used to frighten away birds should the oil threaten nearby state and federal wildlife sanctuaries. The official estimate of the amount of oil streaming from the wild wells was 600 to 1,000 barrels daily. (In Tampa last month 500 barrels from a tanker that ran aground had been enough to ruin shorelands and cause $10-12 million damage.) But in New Orleans a Louisiana fish and wildlife officer questioned the announced estimate of spilling oil. "As I understand it," he said, "before the fire about 1,900 barrels of oil were being produced daily on the rig. This oil was coming from just three wells; the other nine were not being operated at that time. Now, if three wells under control produce 1,900 barrels a day, it seems to me that those three, together with the five other wells that blew up in the fire, would produce more than 1,900 barrels a day when they are running out of control."

For the first day the oil was more or less contained by booms strung between barges, and skimmer boats slurped up the slick, but storms broke up the elaborate network and by last weekend there were no booms left between the oil and the shore. However, the high wind, the waves and a good streak of luck were all helping the pollution fight. The prevailing March wind is south-southeast, which would have driven the oil slick straight into the oyster beds and the grassy shallows where the brown shrimp thrive. Instead, north winds nudged the slick toward the open water. At a key time, a rip tide in Breton Sound kept the oil out of the Delta Wildlife Refuge, which shelters waterfowl, and though the oil did plaster much of Breton and Grand Gosier Islands, which are the southernmost part of a federal wildlife sanctuary, the redheads and snow geese that winter there had already left to migrate north.

By late last week fog was shrouding the area and neither the Coast Guard nor federal officials were able to survey the damage. Chevron appeared not to mind the obscurity. When the company told the Coast Guard that for "safety reasons" it wanted no boats or airplanes within two miles of the rig, the Coast Guard agreed—much to the annoyance of federal inspection agencies. The U.S. Geological Survey decided to fly special planes into the New Orleans area that can measure and chart an oil slick through cloud cover by using ultraviolet equipment. Hearing about the spy planes, Jack Werre, Chevron's publicity man, said: "Are you guys aware that you can blind every seagull with those ultraviolet rays?"

If the good north wind keeps blowing, and if the remaining wild wells (No. 6 is one of them) are capped soon, Louisiana may escape from Chevron's misfortune without suffering a true catastrophe. Then the question will be, "What has been learned?" The Senate Interior Committee has begun an investigation and is contemplating holding public and legislative hearings. The politics of the situation, Harlan Wood says, make it possible that the Federal Government will at last take some meaningful action against a violator of its oil-drilling regulations—it is an election year and President Nixon has made pollution a major issue. Wood even feels that it is unfortunate that it is Chevron which is on the spot, for its parent company, Standard Oil of California, has had a good reputation with the Department of the Interior. But the Government may now decide that rules without penalties are folly.

In addition, an auction of 77,000 more acres of offshore oil lands in the Gulf has been postponed. (There were no oil wells in the Gulf until 1948. Now about 1,000 new ones are sunk each year. So society progresses.) But the Federal Government, which stands to make about three-quarters of a billion dollars, probably will put these new leases on the auction block within six months. Not even public anger nor $2.3 billion in lawsuits that resulted from the Santa Barbara blob moved the Government to restrain drilling and exploration in the Santa Barbara channel. The best way to solve the Santa Barbara problem, a presidential panel declared, was simply to exhaust the oil reservoir in the area. That will take 20 years.

Indeed, the oil dollar seems to be something neither federal nor state governments can do without. In Louisiana the state's income from oil and gas operations is $400 million annually—40% of the state budget. In Baton Rouge it is political suicide to berate oil interests. Louisiana Attorney General Jack Gremillion, when asked about the Chevron leak, said it appeared to be "an act of God." And the state's lieutenant governor, C. C. Aycock, complained bitterly of the Federal Government's postponement of offshore oil leasing in the Gulf. "It is a disaster," he declared.

Which are the very words Secretary Hickel had used after viewing the Chevron mess: "A disaster."