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Oil workers on foreign-flagged ships are at the mercy of corporations

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Sara Sneath, Floodlight
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Billboards for maritime injury lawyers line the roads of Lafourche Parish, Louisiana.

This story is a collaboration between Floodlight and HuffPost. It also appeared in The Lens in New Orleans. It was supported by a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism. 

As Hurricane Ida zeroed in on Louisiana, Howell McIntyre was trapped nearly 100 miles offshore aboard a 620-foot drillship named the Globetrotter II. The Category 4 storm pummeled the ship with 150 mph winds and waves as tall as oak trees, threatening to capsize it.

McIntyre was knocked against a wall, banging his head and knees. Another worker, Michael Brunner, was thrown from his bed and slammed into lockers.

“The entire crew believed they were going to die,” reads one lawsuit filed against employers Noble Drilling and Shell Oil on behalf of 10 crew members injured on the ship that day.Out of more than 100 workers aboard when Ida hit, at least 13 are suing for compensation related to traumatic brain and back injuries. They say the companies failed to send a helicopter to evacuate them, even as the storm’s danger became clear.

But the workers face a significant legal hurdle: While the Globetrotter II is owned by a U.S. company and was contracted by a British company, it sails under a Liberian flag, which means it’s not subject to many of the labor and environmental regulations American vessels must follow.Flying a foreign flag is just one way companies evade accountability for injuries and deaths that occur while pulling oil and natural gas from the seafloor, an inherently dangerous line of work. Oil and gas extraction workers on land and offshore are about six times more likely than the average U.S. worker to be killed on the job, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data from 2008 to 2017, the most recent data available. Even as the offshore workforce has shrunk 40% in recent years, fatalities have increased.And new data collected by Floodlight and HuffPost finds that offshore deaths in particular are being undercounted. At least 138 offshore oil and gas workers died on the job between 2007 and 2020, according to aggregated public records from the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement and the U.S. Coast Guard. However, the BSEE disclosed only 53 fatalities during that time period. That’s in part because the agency has excluded deaths that occur on the way to or from drilling rigs and those from causes like heart attacks, which might be treatable if workers weren’t so far from civilization.

Of the offshore fatalities where Floodlight and HuffPost were able to determine the flag of the ship, about 40% occurred on vessels flagged in other countries, including the Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 men.

Companies register their ships in other countries that have weaker worker protections and environmental regulations than the U.S., allowing them to save money by avoiding higher standards. But crews on foreign-flagged ships and their families may have a harder time getting compensated under a U.S. law that gives them the right to sue for injuries and death at sea, according to maritime injury lawyers.

In the final weeks of the Obama administration, regulators tried to close a loophole that allows American companies to register vessels abroad — and had rare support from business-friendly Louisiana Republicans — but dropped the effort after significant industry pushback. The rule change would have limited the use of foreign-flagged vessels in the U.S. offshore industry.

‘We Take Care Of Your Family While You Can’t Work’

Billboards for maritime injury lawyers line the roads of Lafourche Parish.

“We take care of your family while you can’t work,” reads a billboard in Lockport, Louisiana, advertising Blake Jones Law Firm. Every month, roughly 15,000 workers are flown from the parish to offshore oil and gas facilities, according to the Greater Lafourche Port Commission.

For many, the opportunity to make good money offshore is still worth the risk.

“There’s four choices if you go to school in south Louisiana: Move, fish, oil and gas, or crime,” said Jon Mills, a deckhand from southern Louisiana. Mills was on a lift boat last April before it got caught in a storm and capsized off the coast of Louisiana, killing 13 men.

“People called to see if I was OK,” he said. “Us boat guys, we’re like a family.”

Those aboard the Globetrotter II during Hurricane Ida feared they would have the same fate. Nearby oil platforms and drillships were already fully evacuated, and the window they had to avoid the hurricane was closing. Videos the crew recorded as Ida bore down showed the vessel taking on water. Noble Drilling never gave the ship an order to stop work, and neither Noble nor Shell told the crew to evacuate.

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As New Orleans meteorologists warned that Ida’s winds were topping 100 mph, the captain, who was not named in reports, made the call to try to navigate away from the storm. But the crew wasn’t finished disconnecting the drillship from the seafloor and struggled to wrench off overtorqued bolts. When the ship moved, pieces of drilling risers broke away and more than a dozen tanks on the deck overturned, spilling 3,700 gallons of lube oil and hydraulic fluid into the Gulf. The vessel suffered $1 million in damage, according to the BSEE incident report. While the whole Globetrotter II crew survived, four injured workers were medevaced to shore to be evaluated after the storm.

“You’re at the mercy of the company. They have to evacuate the crew by helicopter,” said Houston-based attorney Kurt Arnold, who filed the suit on behalf of 10 Globetrotter II workers.

“They tried to cut it too close.”

A Shell spokesperson directed requests for comment to the contractor that was running the operation, Noble Drilling. Craig Muirhead, Noble’s vice president of investor relations, declined to answer questions.

While a 1920 U.S. maritime law called the Jones Act mandates that cargo vessels moving between U.S. ports must be U.S.-flagged, U.S. Customs and Border Protection created exceptions to the rule that allow for more widespread use of foreign-flagged vessels in the U.S. offshore oil industry, like the Globetrotter II. The International Transport Workers’ Federation has identified Liberia, where the Globetrotter II drillship was registered, as a “flag of convenience,” meaning shipowners can register their vessels without any connection to the country.

The flag of the ship determines the shipowner’s requirements for wastewater, air pollution, safety equipment and how workers are compensated if something goes wrong, said Elizabeth DeSombre, author of “Flagging Standards: Globalization and Environmental, Safety, and Labor Regulations at Sea.”

She said foreign-flagged vessels have more lax labor rules and therefore save on costs. “The big oil companies don’t want to be operating in a more expensive regulatory environment,” DeSombre said.Between 2005 and 2021, 51 fatalities in the Gulf of Mexico occurred on vessels flying flags of convenience. Some of the fatal events detailed in Coast Guard documents were never reported by the media.

In one November 2018 incident, three workers died and two had to be medevaced off a floating platform named the Ocean Whittington after workers were exposed to deadly levels of carbon monoxide because the vessel didn’t have detectors.

The platform was flying the Panama flag.

Arnold, the Houston-based lawyer, said he is working with about 60 workers who were left out in the Gulf to ride out storms on offshore vessels in recent years.

“This is the most I’ve represented within a year’s time period, which shows the companies aren’t taking the precautions that they should,” Arnold said.

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What Is The Cost Of Safety?

In January 2017, the Obama administration proposed throwing out Customs and Border Protection’s exemptions to the Jones Act. In an unusual occurrence in Louisiana, the proposal put even Republican officials at odds with the oil and gas industry. American-flagged ships are required to be built in the U.S. and employ more American workers, which helped the move gain support with the maritime unions.

Thirty-one Louisiana state representatives, including Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, signed a letter in support of the rule change underscoring that it would benefit Louisiana workers. Even Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican and staunch supporter of the oil industry, supported the revision.

But Customs and Border Protection faced opposition from Louisiana’s oil and gas industry and the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees drilling in Texas’ Gulf waters. In a public comment to CBP, Bruce Culpepper, Shell’s president at the time, argued that the proposal was politically motivated and shouldn’t have emerged just 48 hours before the end of the Obama administration.

Shell and Chevron also submitted comments on the draft rule, arguing there weren’t enough American-made vessels able to drill in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton warned in comments that the proposal would kill jobs and reduce revenue, echoing talking points from the American Petroleum Institute.

Four months later — under the new Trump administration — the agency dropped the proposed rulemaking altogether. The White House did not return a request for comment on whether it has plans to close the loophole.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) recently introduced a bill to improve the oversight of foreign-flagged ships that operate in the offshore industry. The American Offshore Worker Fairness Act, introduced in mid-February, would require offshore energy vessels to provide details about who owns the ships on an annual basis. The bill could address the concerns of maritime injury lawyers who say flags of convenience allow shipowners to remain legally anonymous, making it harder to bring claims against them.

But the bill would only address one loophole that oil and gas companies use to try to escape liability when workers are injured or die offshore. Drillships are also frequently run by contracted companies because contractors cannot be held criminally liable for worker deaths. Under another law, oil and gas companies can try to cap the damages they have to pay to injured workers. Those payments are based on the value of the vessel, which drops after damages from accidents or severe weather events.

Matthew Shaffer, a Houston-based attorney with Schechter, Shaffer & Harris who has filed three suits on behalf of workers injured on the Globetrotter II, said the entire system is set up against workers.

The companies are “always interested in making money, and sometimes that comes at the cost of safety. It’s a fine line that they run,” Shaffer said.

Mills, the deckhand from southern Louisiana, said that despite the risks of his job, he tries to see the beauty in his situation, like the uninterrupted views of the night sky from a ship out in the Gulf.

“You see stuff people don’t get to see every day,” he said.

Offshore workers are at nature’s mercy — for better or worse.