The Coast Guard has just called off its search for the 11 workers who’ve been missing since Tuesday’s oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Hopes that the workers made it into lifeboats have faded. It seems likely that the workers were either killed by the explosion or unable to make it safely off the burning platform – but then their bodies will have sunk along with rig. Their loved ones will have the additional anguish of not knowing for sure what happened to them.

Tom Fowler at the Houston Chronicle’s NewsWatch:Energy blog has a bit more on who the missing workers were and their likely location at the time of the explosion:

The 9 Transocean workers and 2 M.I. Swaco workers have been missing since late Tuesday night when the rig appears to have suffered a blowout that caused an explosion and fire. Many of the men are believed to have been on the drilling floor of the rig at the time of the accident, an area where the blowout could have had the most devestating impact.

The rig was owned by Transocean and leased to BP. Fowler also notes that the rig was holding 700,000 gallons of diesel fuel at the time of the explosion, and crews are trying to clean up oil that has spilled.

Houston Chronicle reporters Tom Fowler, Monica Hatcher, and Brett Clanton note that this is one in a string of recent disasters at oil and gas facilities:

Six people died during an April 2 explosion and fire at Tesoro’s Anacortes, Wash., refinery. Three workers were injured at an April 14 fire at Exxon Mobil’s Baton Rouge refinery, and one worker died April 19 in a crane accident at Motiva Enterprises’ Port Arthur refinery.

I’ve heard some people suggest that this latest disaster should help push our country away from increased drilling and towards renewable energy. It’s a strange-but-true aspect of our society that the sudden death of 11 or 29 workers (in the case of the latest Massey mine disaster) can do more to galvanize us than the slower but far more massive death toll from lung diseases and the effects of climate disruption.

We don’t yet know what caused this latest explosion, and the fact that the rig has now sunk will complicate the investigation. What we do know is that the coal and oil industries can be dangerous, but there are many regulations and procedures designed to keep workers safe. Over the past several years, we’ve seen an appalling number of disasters at oil and coal facilities that have killed and seriously injured workers. It seems that certain coal and oil companies think they don’t have to follow all the rules – and if we as a society are so dependent on their products that we’re unwilling to force them to follow the law, maybe they’re right.

There’s a lot of discussion right now about preventing banks from becoming “too big to fail.” We should also think about preventing companies from becoming “too arrogant to obey the law.”