Anniversary Post: Piper Alpha Explosion

Piper AlphaOn this day in 1988, the Piper Alpha oil production platform exploded, leading to the deaths of 167 men. These platforms are a whole lot larger than people normally think. The Piper Alpha was 474 feet above the surface of the water. That is more than twice the distance from the roadway of the Golden Gate Bridge to the water. In other words, people can’t easily escape a fire by jumping.

The Piper Alpha was originally designed to be safe. When it went into operation in 1976, it contained three firewalls between where the most dangerous work was done and where the men lived. But it was later converted from its initial purpose of drilling for oil to the new purpose of drilling for natural gas. This basically destroyed the original design. Let’s be clear about that: why design and build a whole new platform when that’s going to cost money? So as always, the company — Occidental Petroleum — was fine with safety, as long as it didn’t add much in terms of costs. When costs are substantial, lives don’t matter, because those who are getting the quarterly bonuses are not working on the platforms.

By 1988, the platform was in need of major maintenance. By July, they had taken out its Gas Conservation Module to replace it. This meant that they could not drill for natural gas. But instead of just shutting down the drilling while the repairs were going on, the company put it back into oil drilling mode. They were drilling almost 120,000 barrels per day. None of which is to say that this is the reason for the explosion. There were mistakes that were at least nominally made by workers. But the larger context is that Occidental Petroleum did not have proper procedures in place and, as always, put profits before people. No criminal charges were ever filed against the company, and I’m sure all its executives went on to have have very nice careers and retirements.

We mark this day 27 years ago when 167 men died as a result of corporate greed and incompetence on the Piper Alpha.

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