By now you’ve likely heard that the U.S. is expected to overtake Russia this year as the world’s biggest producer of oil and gas. The surge in production comes from a drilling boom enabled by using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, along with, in many places, horizontal drilling. These technologies have made previously inaccessible pockets of oil and gas in shale formations profitable.
But at what cost? Accidents, fatalities and health concerns are mounting. Here’s a look at what we’ve learned about the dangers of fracking in the last few weeks.
1. Exploding Trains
Another day, another oil train accident, it seems. On the night of January 7, a train carrying crude oil and propane derailed near Plaster Rock in New Brunswick, Canada. A day later the fire continued as locals evacuated, unsure if they were being exposed to toxic fumes.
It’s a familiar story. 2013 went out with a bang in North Dakota when a train carrying crude oil from the Bakken shale derailed and exploded on Dec 30. The ensuing fireballs and toxic smoke caused the evacuation many of Casselton’s 2,300 residents.
Fracking has unleashed a firestorm of drilling in the Bakken (a rock formation under parts of North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan). The Casselton accident was the third rail accident in six months in North America involving oil trains from the Bakken (it’s unclear if the Plaster Rock train was carrying Bakken oil). The most horrific was the July derailment and explosion of a train that killed 47 people in the small town of Lac-Megantic in Quebec. The second occurred in Alabama in November.
All of this has grabbed the attention of the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. “Crude oil produced in North America’s booming Bakken region may be more flammable and therefore more dangerous to ship by rail than crude from other areas, a U.S. regulator said after studying the question for four months,” wrote Angela Greiling Keane and Mark Drajem for Bloomberg.
That doesn’t mean shipments will stop, only that trains may be relabeled to say they are carrying a more hazardous cargo.
As Gordon Hoekstra wrote for the Vancouver Sun:
The significant increase in the transport of oil by rail, and the growing evidence that Bakken shale oil is proving itself to be a very explosive commodity, shows that regulations on both sides of the border are not adequate, said Mark Winfield, an associate professor at York University who researches public safety regulation.
Even Robert Harms, who heads North Dakota’s Republican party and consults with the industry, has called for a slowdown, according to Reuters.
2. Workers at Risk
Those who live along train routes aren’t the only ones facing safety risks from the oil and gas industry. NPR reports that accidents among workers in the industry are on the rise—bigtime. From 2009 to 2012 the industry added 23 percent more workers but “the hiring spree has come with a terrible price: Last year, 138 workers were killed on the job — an increase of more than 100 percent since 2009,” wrote Andrew Schneider and Marilyn Geewax for NPR . “In fact, the fatality rate among oil and gas workers is now nearly eight times higher than the all-industry rate of 3.2 deaths for every 100,000 workers.”
Last July, I visited a well pad in New Milton, West Virginia. The following day there was an explosion at the site injuring several workers, two of whom died from their injuries. In my time in West Virginia I met several workers on other sites who were bleary-eyed from long hours on the job.
Sure, jobs are good, but safe jobs should be a priority. Accidents happen in a dangerous industry, but they also increase when workers are kept on the job for too many hours or lack proper training or industry doesn’t follow safe practices.
3. The Accidents You Don’t Hear About
Trains bursting into flames usually (and rightfully) makes the national headlines—especially when fatalities occur. But smaller accidents happen daily that often fail to make it beyond local reporting, if that. Those who live in communities adjacent to the oilfields and gaslands keep their own tallies.
In Tyler County, West Virginia on January 2 an incident occurred on the Lisby natural gas well pad. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection press release said, “A tank ruptured and leaked fluids to surrounding grounds on the well site.”
“Ruptured and leaked” may be accurate, but more than an understatement. A tank filled with fracking fluid (although the WVDEP hasn’t been able to say for sure what exactly was in it) ignited and ended up across the well pad. “What we’ve been able to determine is that a tank ruptured during the flushing of frac lines,” said Thomas Aluise, spokesperson for the WVDEP. “Vapors formed from the fluids inside the tank and were somehow ignited, possibly by static electricity, but that has not been confirmed. As a result of the ignition and subsequent rupture, the tank was dislodged from its foundation.”
Does this photo look like the tank simply "dislodged?"
The tank held 50 barrels of fluid, some of which has leaked into soil, a neighboring property, and potentially into a nearby stream. The explosion happened 625 feet from the nearest house and one person at the site, a contractor who broke his ankle, was injured in the incident. The company, Jay-Bee Oil & Gas, is required to submit plans for soil and water sampling by January 14, which seems like quite a while to wait to take samples if chemicals are leaking into the ground or water sources.
Jay-Bee does not have a glowing corporate record. “The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has cited the company for 21 environmental violations since 2010, and the federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration has cited the company for 38 worker safety violations, “ wrote Gayathri Vaidyanathan for E&E. “The incident suggests that environmental and worker safety violations often go hand in hand.”
How many environmental and safety violations does it take before a company is shut down?
Accidents like this are common across oil and gas country. So are compressor station fires in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Wyoming. Or truck accidents, as Food and Water Watch reports: “Heavy-truck crashes rose 7.2 percent in heavily fracked rural Pennsylvania counties (with at least one well for every 15 square miles) but fell 12.4 in unfracked rural counties after fracking began in 2005.”
The Centers for Disease Control reported that the top cause of fatalities in the oil and gas industry are motor vehicle accidents. “[W]orkers drive long distances on rural highways to travel to well sites. Often these roads lack firm shoulders and other safety features,” the agency reports. This puts not just workers at risk, but everyone on the road.
All these incidences won’t make national news, but collectively they add up for the residents who live nearby who may fear for their safety while on the roads or in their own homes.
4. Not So Good for Your Health
Findings presented at a recent meeting of the American Economic Association by researchers from Princeton University, Columbia University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology have made headlines. The researchers “looked at Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2011 to assess the health of infants born within a 2.5-kilometer radius of natural-gas fracking sites,” reports Mark Whitehouse for Bloomberg.
“They found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6 percent to more than 9 percent,” writes Whitehouse. “The chances of a low Apgar score, a summary measure of the health of newborn children, roughly doubled, to more than 5 percent.”
The study has yet to be peer-reviewed, so let’s see how it fares. It does not implicate drinking water, however. The most likely culprit is air pollution. Oil and gas operations have been found to release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides, which contribute to ground-level ozone.
So far no communities where fracking is occurring have done a comprehensive health assessment to see how residents may be at risk from activities related to increased oil and gas drilling. Is it time yet?