This story was produced in collaboration with NPR.
Within seconds, a bright, white flash erupted on the lower deck of West Delta 105 E, an oil-production platform positioned a dozen miles off the Louisiana coast. Disoriented, one crewmember found himself 10 feet away from where he had been working before he blacked out. Another likened the impact to a sledgehammer blow to his head. A third told investigators he felt like he’d been hit by an 18-wheeler, his hard hat, glasses and earplugs knocked off in the blast.
For a fourth, death came instantly. Jerrel “Bubba” Hancock, a 24-year-old father of two, was the closest to the hatch of a large metal tank when flammable vapors ignited, unleashing a fireball the afternoon of Nov. 20, 2014. He died of blunt-force trauma to the head and chest.
Hancock’s death during a maintenance job could have been avoided, federal investigators concluded in late 2016. Safety lapses leading up to the accident were laid bare in a 73-page report by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), a little-known agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior responsible for policing the sprawling offshore industry. It was the sort of comprehensive post-mortem for which BSEE had been designed.
But the agency has faced crippling challenges on several fronts, from staffing to its ability to hold companies accountable. Born in the wake of 2010’s Deepwater Horizon explosion — which killed 11 workers and dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — BSEE has struggled to implement safety regulations that are now under threat of being rolled back. The agency’s team of roughly 130 inspectors is responsible for conducting 20,000 inspections annually across 2,000-plus facilities from the Gulf to the Alaska coast. Its annual budget of $204 million is about a third of the cost of the sunken Deepwater rig.
Under the Trump administration, the fate of the small bureau — and its roughly 800 employees — is also in doubt. As the White House and the Interior Department pursue “energy dominance,” opening more federal lands and waters to drilling than ever before, BSEE’s status — along with the safety reforms that helped empower it — has become increasingly tenuous. Concerns over the agency’s potential demise have swirled on Capitol Hill for months, buoyed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s calls for deregulation, restructuring and his controversial pick to lead BSEE: Louisiana native and longtime oil-industry ally Scott Angelle, who has pledged to take the bureau “from an era of isolation to an era of cooperation.”