Source: Houston Chronicle, June 13, 2019
Posted on: https://www.advisen.com
A federal review of an oil rig explosion that killed five workers in Oklahoma last year assigned blame not only to the Houston company that owned and operated the rig, but also to the entire energy sector and government for a woeful lack of regulation and supervision of onshore oil and gas drilling.
The report, released Wednesday by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, amounted to an indictment of the oil and gas industry and the shale boom that rapidly turned the United States into the world’s largest oil and gas producer, but has come with little oversight and the cost of human life. The explosion, near Quinton, Okla. was the deadliest U.S. oilfield accident since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon tragedy killed 11 workers on a Gulf of Mexico offshore platform.
“As onshore oil and gas extraction grows, it is imperative that the industry is using proven and reliable safety standards and practices,” Kristen Kulinowski, interim executive director of the Chemical Safety Board. “This tragedy could have been averted. Our report lays out a strong case for recognizing the hazards in this industry and ensuring the safety of its workers.”
The 18-month investigation found that improper drilling and testing of the well contributed to the blowout preventer failing at the site that was managed by Patterson-UTI. Dangerous conditions built up over several hours without proper safety systems as undetected gas filled the well after the drill bit and drill pipe were removed, resulting in an explosion, the report said.
Drilling rig alarms were disabled by the workers prior to explosion and fire, which swept through the drilling rig, according to the report.
Three of the five workers killed were Patterson-UTI employees. The victims were Josh Ray of Fort Worth; Cody Risk of Wellington, Colo.; and Matt Smith, Parker Waldridge and Roger Cunningham, all of Oklahoma. Ray, Smith and Risk were Patterson-UTI employees.
“Our investigation found significant lapses in good safety practices at this site,” Kulinowski added. “For over 14 hours, there was a dangerous condition building at this well. The lack of effective safety management at this well resulted in a needless catastrophe.”
In a prepared statement, Patterson-UTI said it fully cooperated with the investigation and extended its sympathies to the deceased workers. The company said it has taken steps to prevent similar accidents.
“While Patterson-UTI Drilling does not agree with all of the findings in the report,” the company said, “Patterson-UTI is nevertheless evaluating what additional policies, procedures and training could be implemented to address the key issues raised in the report.”
The Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating chemical accidents, typically only gets involved in the worst industrial disasters. The board averages about six investigations a year.
Drilling has expanded rapidly over the last decade with the unlocking of shale oil and gas reserves. The nation’s oil output has skyrocketed from about 5 million barrels a day in 2008 to 12.4 million barrels at the end of May, according to the U.S. Energy Department estimates. It is expected to average 13.3 million barrels a day in 2020.
Regulation, however, has not kept up. Unlike offshore operations, the federal government has not developed specific rules for onshore drilling, including modern horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, techniques.
Oil and gas drilling is exempted from U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards that govern safety for chemical plants. General OSHA standards fail to address the unique safety hazards associated with onshore drilling, the report said.
The Chemical Safety Board urged OSHA to develop effective oversight that addresses the hazards unique to onshore drilling. OSHA spokeswoman Kimberly Darby said the agency is studying this matter as part of its process safety management rule-making review. OSHA is researching data and industry practices to determine its next step, she said.
The board also called on the oil and gas industry — through the American Petroleum Institute trade association — to develop better safety designs for rigs and other equipment, and for individual states such as Oklahoma and Texas to implement better regulations. Nearly 100 people die each year in this country from oil and gas production work, according to the Labor Department.
API Vice President Erik Milito said the association will review the report and consider its recommendations to improve safety at drilling sites. He said the industry works close with OSHA and other agencies to enhance safety. API has developed dozens of safety standards to improve oil and gas operations, he added.
The Oklahoma well was operated by Red Mountain, a small Oklahoma oil and gas company. Patterson-UTI ran the drilling operation as Red Mountain’s main contractor.
The report determined that the explosion was caused by the failure of two preventive barriers — the primary barrier and the backup blowout preventer. Important safety operations called “flow checks,” which are used to determine if gas is in the well, were not performed.
The CSB said Patterson-UTI failed to maintain an effective alarm system. Likely deemed an unnecessary nuisance, the entire alarm system was disabled by the rig workers, the report said. That that contributed to workers being unaware that gas was entering the well.
“As a result, the workers had little knowledge of the impending disaster,” CSB investigator Lauren Grim said.
Three of the workers killed were already in the rig’s drilling cabin, called the dog house, while the other two victims ran into the cabin from the rig floor when the fire broke out. There’s no system to ensure emergency evacuation options are present on the rigs, the report said, noting that the fire blocked the entrances to the dog house. Nor is there any fireproofing or fire protection within the drilling cabin.
“All five of the workers inside the driller’s cabin were effectively trapped because fire blocked the driller’s cabin’s two exit doors,” Grim said.
The explosion was a setback to Patterson-UTI’s efforts to repair what through much of the last decade was one of the worst safety records in the industry. During the 2000s, Patterson-UTI had more fatalities at its work sites than any other U.S. energy company. A particularly scathing 2008 report from a U.S. Senate committee chaired by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts found that a dozen workers died at the company’s Texas drilling sites alone from 2003 through 2007.