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Inside Energy: Dark Side of the Boom part 1

There are now over half a million oil and gas workers nationwide. And as the industry has grown, so have the number of fatalities. In 2013, 112 oil and gas workers died on the job nationwide.

In 2011 and 2012, the most recent years we have state data for, 23 people died in North Dakota's oil and gas industry.

Today Inside Energy begins a series of stories we call DARK SIDE OF THE BOOM, using brand new data analysis to look at fatality rates in America’s oil and gas fields. In part 1, Prairie Public’s Emily Guerin explores the history of another hazardous industry: mining.

NEWS ANNOUNCER: Officials of the Consolidation Coal Company and the government met today to determine whether to seal the mine at Farmington in which 78 men have been trapped for almost 10 days…(DUCK UNDER)

GUERIN: In 1968, the Farmington No.9 coal mine in West Virginia blew up. Smoke billowed from the mine’s entrance for 10 days as emergency responders tried to reach the 78 trapped miners. Then, with people all over the country watching on the nightly news, they gave up (quick). (FADE BACK UP NEWS)

NEWS ANNOUNCER: The mining company officials announced tonight that all rescue efforts have been exhausted and the mine will be sealed (FADE OUT)

GUERIN: It was horrible. Too horrible. In fact, a group of miners widows went to Washington and told Congress to do something to make mining safer.

BONNIE STEWART: They were lamenting the safety issues that their husbands had told them about over and over again.

GUERIN: Bonnie Stewart is a journalism professor at California State University Fullerton and the author of a book about the mine disaster.

STEWART: In fact several of them had told their families that this mine is going to blow.

GUERIN: A month later, the Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, threw down the gauntlet in a speech on mine safety. "Let me assure you,” he said, “the people of this country no longer will accept the disgraceful health and safety record that has characterized this major industry." …

STEWART: Following this disaster was the passage of the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, that allowed for more inspections and consequences for violations.

GUERIN: Eight years after that, Congress created the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Since then, the coal mine fatality rate has dropped over 80 percent.


GUERIN: Today, there’s another energy industry with big safety problems: oil and gas.


GUERIN: (DUCK AMBI UNDER) That’s from a video of a crew drilling an oil well in Texas. (FADE OUT) Oil and gas is booming. And so are the number of fatalities. But these deaths rarely make news.

PEG SEMINARIO: I think the fact that the fatalities largely happen one at a time. That they don’t get the same kind of attention as a disaster in a coal mine where you have multiple numbers of miners that may be killed.

GUERIN: That’s Peg Seminario. She’s the director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO.

SEMINARIO: Nonetheless the worker whose working in oil and gas is more likely to be killed on the job than a coal miner. That’s a fact.

GUERIN: But figuring out exactly how dangerous the oil and gas industry is is really hard. The Mine Safety and Health Administration or MSHA sends out a bulletin and an accident investigation every time a miner dies.

But since there’s no equivalent of MSHA for oil and gas, there’s no one place to look for information on worker fatalities … Jordan Wirfs-Brock is our data journalist here at Inside Energy. She spent hours wrangling data. Here’s what she found:

JORDAN WIRFS-BROCK: Nationwide, if you’re an oil and gas worker, you are six times more likely to be killed at work than the average American.

GUERIN: Ok, but how do different states fare?

WIRFS-BROCK: In 2011 and 2012 - that’s our most recent STATE data - Texas had more oil and gas fatalities than any state. But when you take the number of workers into account, and look at the fatal injury rate, North Dakota stands out -- 75 deaths per 100,000 workers, which is 3 times higher than the national rate for oil and gas fatalities.

GUERIN: Hows that compare to other jobs?

WIRFS-BROCK: Well,Its more dangerous than being a pilot, but less dangerous than being a commercial fisherman. ]

GUERIN: This is not a new problem. Back in 1983, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration acknowledged the dangers of working in oil and gas and even admitted it wasn’t doing a good job regulating the industry. … Eric Brooks is the director of OSHA in North and South Dakota. (AMBI OF FLIPPING PAGES) He keeps a faded copy of the federal register from that date on his desk as a reminder. He reads the entry to me:

ERIC BROOKS (reading): OSHA believes that the current general industry standards inadequately address the unique hazards encountered on oil and gas wells. OSHA believes this lack of adequate regulatory protection has contributed to the high number of deaths and injuries in this industry.

GUERIN: In the three decades since -- no new OSHA regulations on oil and gas safety, no federal agency. Brooks believes the lack of action is due to a regulatory process that simply takes forever. But Ellen Smith has another theory. She’s the editor of Mine Safety and Health News. She says back in the 1970s when Congress decided to make mining safer, people had a lot more faith in government regulations.

SMITH: You’ll see the states probably better able to enact any legislation than you’ll see the federal government. This has just been a very dysfunctional Congress.

GUERIN: In fact, a few states have tried to make dangerous industries safer. Alaska did it with commercial fishing and aviation in the 1990s. Wyoming has started to address its oil and gas problem. But other oil producing states, like North Dakota, haven’t really tried.

So, what’s the tipping point when an industry becomes so unsafe, something has to change? That’s what we’ll be looking at in stories to come in this series.

For Inside Energy, I’m Emily Guerin

ANCHOR TAG: Stay tuned for the next story in the Dark Side of the Boom Series, when Inside Energy takes a look at North Dakota.

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