What are the facts on shale damage to workers and environment?

lawdoctorsOne thing many US observers find annoying about the shale debate is how an “urban myth” has developed where the US is particularly careless and the UK wouldn’t suffer the consequences of “cowboy” and “controversial” operators.

Certainly UK regulations are tough and I have no problem with them either.But there is a variant of Stockholm Syndrome going on, where not only UK regulators, but even more bizarrely, some UK would be operators, cite the US experience just as negatively, and sometimes even as often, as some fracktivist groups.

As a result, feelings and opinions trump, if you’ll excuse the word, facts. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but the US provides an avalanche of facts. So the evidence of damage caused in the US should be easy to uncover.  Since I’m an industry person, I can attest how my facts sometimes get the spots knocked off them to support the eternally “controversial” meme of alleged US damage to the environment.

But let’s approach this from two angles: worker injuries and the not entirely unconnected example of lawsuits.

Let’s look at second issue first. As I’ve often pointed out, fracktivists in and outside the USA often are of the opinion that the only reason there are not more than a handful of successful damage actions is due to a nefarious plot. This is a battle of two realities. According to antis, corruption and Cheney prevent damage claims even making to court. I guess the same people have forgotten myriad John Grisham novels and of course Erin Brockovich. Where people do make claims, equally rampant corruption by state and federal environmental regulators apparently results in plucky little rural families condemned to drink dirty water. After all, even a US Senator told us so in California this week:

There are tens of thousands of homes where you turn on the faucet and can’t drink the water…if we do not act aggressively on fracking and other issues, this problem will only spread…The EPA … [has] shown clear evidence that fracking can lead to a contaminated water supply.”

The problem with the EPA study is not so much that it didn’t provide clear evidence, but that most UK media outlets refused to cover the findings because the findings disrupted the “controversial” meme, but that’s not my point. Even at Bernie’s news conference, no US reporter challenged his fact-free statements either. Sanders seems to have the same Teflon tailor as Trump. But where does Bernie, someone I’d happily vote for against Trump if not against Hillary, get facts from?  Stand up, Josh Fox. We thought we had seen last of him. We were wrong.

I’m not sure if Gary Sernovitz subjects audiences to banjo recitals like Fox, but he too has a hipster beard and New York City Jewish liberal credentials as impeccable as those from Fox and Sanders. He also happens to work in the oil and gas industry. He has written a must read book (for which he tells me he can’t find a UK publisher on the grounds it’s “Too American”) The Green and the Black” . I can’t praise it highly enough. Not only is it very well written, as one would expect from a twice published novelist and New Yorker magazine contributor, it’s a sure winner if there is ever a funniest energy book category. Here’s Gary on the damage story, page 108 of the US edition:

The industry is focused on HS&E for human decency, and for human greed. Oil companies, like all companies, want to make the most money they can. While one can increase margins by cutting corners – rushing cement jobs, buying suspicious Chinese casing — operators know that these are fool’s strategies. The best way to make less costly widgets is by drilling and completing wells efficiently, using less land and materials, and not having to redo bad work.

A good way to make money is also not to stupidly lose money. And of the many things that the American oil industry doesn’t want to do – drill dusters, see commodity prices fall, listen to French politicians – highest on the list may be not wanting to get sued. In the oil business, when accidents happen (in a spill) or shoddiness occurs (from poor well integrity) a lawyer appears about eight seconds after the spill hits the ground, as if he were a genie caused by the spill itself.  Getting your company sued is a good way to get fired.From the local perspective, one of the benefits of the more institutional bureaucratic phase of the boom, with more drilling done by larger companies, is that the size of an oil company is directly correlated to the size – and the paranoia – of its legal department.

But let’s assume that somehow, there exists a giant plot cooked up in a smoke filled room in the Dick Cheney suite at Halliburton by the Koch Brothers, Harold Hamm, Aubrey McLendon and even liberals like George Mitchell, to either pay off or put pay to in other ways, all the alleged damage. If so, the plot would have to ripple even further. Then there would be a parallel relation between environmental damage and worker safety. Shoddy practices in one area can be expected to have a concurrence with worker injuries.  So, unless one thinks that the O+G sector is literally burying bodies of its workers (while expensively shushing up their families at the same time), oil and gas fields could reasonably expected to be very dangerous places. But, and again to disprove this one would have to include several state and federal agencies participating in what would appear to be an insanely expensive cover-up , the facts on worker injury tell a very mundane story. This example is from the Centre for Disease Control‘s cheerily named Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. One could disbelieve these figures for example if one also has lost all confidence in the medical profession along with the rest of the cabal. Paying off US doctors strikes me as being as unlikely as it would be very, very expensive.

During 2003–2013, the U.S. oil and gas extraction industry experienced unprecedented growth, doubling the size of its workforce and increasing the number of drilling rigs by 71% (1,2). To describe fatal events among oil and gas workers during this period, CDC analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI), a comprehensive database of fatal work injuries (3). During 2003–2013, the number of work-related fatalities in the oil and gas extraction industry increased 27.6%, with a total of 1,189 deaths; however, the annual occupational fatality rate significantly decreased 36.3% (p<0.05) during this 11-year period. Two-thirds of all worker fatalities were attributed to transportation incidents (479, [40.3%]) and contact with objects/equipment (308 [25.9%]). More than 50% of persons fatally injured were employed by companies that service wells (615 [51.7%]). It is important for employers to consider measures such as land transportation safety policies and engineering controls (e.g., automated technologies) that would address these leading causes of death and reduce workers’ exposure to hazards (46).

The highlighted section is important. An anti would quote the first part, and certainly edit it for credulous, overworked and underpaid  journalists on both sides of the Atlantic. However, as usual, the second part of the sentence, from however onwards, is unlikely to come up in the conversation. Since this is the CDC after all, its not their department to look at production, so it’s left up to me to point out the parallel surge in American’s shale during the period. Or in simple English, despite far more drilling, production and workers, the industry was demonstrably safer. Another way of looking at how safe O+G is to forget about words but let a chart be worth a thousand of them.  This chart from Energy in Depth, but via the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:

EID Fatalities2015 final 2

There are many more dangerous occupations than fracking, farming for one, but if one wants to find a safe job, apart from the layoff factor rife in oil and gas these days, quit teaching, waitressing or government, go drill a well.  Please.

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