Opinion: Is Pemex ready to play on the world stage?

Loren Steffy
Loren Steffy
Opinion by Energy Voice

Flames once again ripped through the darkened skies over the Gulf of Mexico. Workers, fearing for their lives, jumped into the black waters.

Four died in the blast. Forty-five others were injured, including 16 who were hospitalized.

The chilling video of fire engulfing an oil processing platform early Wednesday off the Mexican coast summons the ghosts of another disaster that happened in the same body of water five years ago.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster was more deadly, killing 11 workers and seriously injuring 17 more.

Aside from their fiery end, the two operations couldn’t have been more different.

The Deepwater Horizon, a Transocean rig under contract to BP, was drilling a deepwater well more than a mile below the surface of the gulf in US waters.

It exploded when the well it was drilling blew out.

Wednesday’s explosion involved a shallow-water platform operated by Petroleos Mexicanos, Mexico’s state-owned oil company. The platform gathered crude from wells in the area and separated the oil and natural gas.

Pemex told Reuters that the fire broke out in the platform’s dehydration and pumping area.

At least one of the workers who died was employed by a contractor who was installing thermal insulating equipment at the time of the explosion, Bloomberg News reported.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster ripped the rig from the top of the well, causing oil to spew from the broken wellhead for 87 days before it was capped.

Pemex has said no oil was spilled from this week’s accident.

Pemex and BP aren’t the only operators in the gulf that have had fatal safety lapses in the past five years. In late 2012, for example, three workers died after an explosion on a shallow water well operated by Houston-based Black Elk Energy off the Louisiana coast.

In the two years prior to that accident, Black Elk’s operations were cited 315 times in for rules violations and risky procedures, and just six months before the accident the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement found that Black Elk “showed a disregard for the safety of personnel” after a platform accident that sent six workers to the hospital.

The Pemex explosion, though, comes less than three weeks before the fifth anniversary of the BP disaster. Both accidents serve as a reminder of how a company’s history of safety lapses can haunt the present.

Like BP, which had a history of safety and maintenance failures for more than a decade prior to the Deepwater Horizon accident, Pemex has a troubled safety history as well.

Just two years ago, a fire at a natural gas facility in northern Mexico killed 26 people, and that same year 37 people died in a blast at the company’s Mexico City headquarters. In 2007, 21 workers were killed in a fire on a Pemex rig in the Campeche Sound.

The latest accident comes as Mexico is hoping to attract foreign investment to its oil business for the first time in 75 years, following sweeping government reforms. While the platform explosion isn’t likely to scare off many potential investors, it may remind them of the risks.

Pemex is a company that has existed to finance the government, not reinvest in its technology.

That’s one of the main reasons the Mexican government is hoping attract foreign capital, and with it, production expertise. But it also needs to adopt more stringent safety measures.

While much has been done to make the gulf safer in the five years since the Deepwater Horizon, more is needed.

We don’t yet know the cause of the Pemex explosion, but given the company’s track record it raises the question of whether Pemex heeded the “lessons learned” from Macondo.

The mantra in the oil industry is that risk is inherent in the business and accidents are a reality of the job.

Certainly, the business of extracting oil offshore is risky, and workers on the rigs and platforms bear the brunt of that risk.

That shouldn’t mean their work environments must be unnecessarily dangerous.

Companies, whether government owned or independently operated, must do a better job of instilling safety programs that are reinforced throughout their culture, from the executive suite to the drilling floor.

For Pemex and Mexico, 2015 is a coming out party of sorts, a chance to reintroduce itself to the world of oil after 75 years of nationalization.

Part of that emergence must include a commitment to the highest safety standards.

Instead, the images of a burning platform against the night sky sends the troubling message that it hasn’t learned the lessons of the past.

Loren Steffy is a managing director with the communications firm 30 Point Strategies. He is a writer at large for Texas Monthly and the author of Drowning in Oil: BP and the Reckless Pursuit of Profit and The Man Who Thought Like a Ship. Follow him on Twitter: @lsteffy; on Facebook or at lorensteffy.com.