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When It Comes To The Oil And Natural Gas Industry, Can We Be Safer?



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Safety…more than a buzz word to West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin.  Governor Tomblin has delivered on a promise made during his State of the State address, i.e., to create a commission focused on safety in the oil and natural gas industry.  At approximately 1:00 p.m. on Thursday August 13, 2015, the first meeting of the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Safety Commission was called to order.

The Commission was created by Executive Order and is chaired by Lawrence Malone, Director of Policy.  The stated objectives of the Commission are to (1) ensure…safety [at]…drilling sites, production facilities, and pipelines across the state; and, (2) determine how to best protect workers at natural gas operations while ensuring [that] workers have…proper training and skills to do…[their] jobs in the safest, most effective way possible.  To achieve these objectives, the Commission will (1) analyze current federal and state oil and natural gas workplace safety regulations; (2) assess data on worksite incidents and accidents; (3) examine training and industry best practices; and, (4) provide recommendations for improving workplace safety in West Virginia.  The specific industry focus, i.e., the areas of interest to the Commission, are engineering/site preparation, exploration/drilling/production, hydraulic fracturing, completion, gathering systems, transmission lines/systems, distribution lines and facilities, and natural gas/shale processing plants.    

On the public side, the Commission is made up of the Secretaries of Commerce, Transportation, Environmental Protection, and Public Safety.  In addition to the Secretaries, four legislators serve on the Commission as ex-officio members (Senator Jack Yost (D) – Brooke, Hancock, Ohio Counties, and portions of Marshall County; Senator Jeff Mullins (R) – Raleigh and Wyoming Counties, and parts of McDowell County; Delegate Woody Ireland (R) – Ritchie County and parts of Pleasants County; and Delegate Patsy Trecost (D) – Harrison County and parts of Taylor County).  Ten representatives comprised of individuals from industry, labor, and trucking are also members. 

Notwithstanding what Malone claimed was a good effort by all interested parties concerning safety in the industry, evidenced by a decrease in incidents/accidents since 2014, he emphasized the need for a renewed commitment to ensuring the continuation of this trend.  Malone’s presentation consisted of a general overview of the safety “hazards associated with drilling for and producing oil and natural gas.”  According to Malone, vehicle collisions, struck-by/caught-in/caught-between incidents, explosions and fires, falls, confined space incidents, ergonomic incidents (e.g., injury resulting from the lifting of heavy objects), incidents involving high pressure lines and equipment, and incidents involving the use of electricity or machines account for the top safety hazards in the industry.  Given the areas of focus outlined by Malone, a prudent operator will ensure their safety plan address these topics at a minimum.   

Malone also identified the top health hazards in the industry.  Hydrogen sulfide, silica, diesel particulate matter, hazardous chemicals, naturally occurring radioactive material, noise, fatigue, and temperature extremes were the primary culprits according to Malone. Reduction in the incidences/circumstances/materials that result in or cause these conditions will be a focus of the Commission as well.

The Commission heard additional presentations from the Appalachian STEPS Network, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Office of Oil and Gas, the West Virginia Public Service Commission, and the West Virginia Department of Transportation.  Here are few brief highlights of the respective presentations:

Appalachian STEPS Network – change to OSHA reporting requirements (General Industry - CFR 1910, e.g., drilling/production, plant production, servicing; Construction – CFR 1926, e.g., site preparation, dismantling of platform); regional emphasis on inspecting oil and natural gas operations in West Virginia; from 2013 to August 11, 2015, eight fatalities within the oil and natural gas industry have been investigated in West Virginia (the respective incidents were caused by interaction with moving equipment or fire/explosion).

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Office of Oil and Gas – oil and natural gas operations in West Virginia must have a well site safety plan in compliance with West Virginia Code.  The plan must, at a minimum, contain specific content and address proper safety measures to be taken for the protection of persons on the site, as well as the general public (e.g., W. Va. Code § 22-6A-7(b)(13); 35 CSR 8- 5.7).

 West Virginia Public Service Commission – focus is on protecting the public and the environment by ensuring the safe and secure movement of gas and hazardous liquids. It regulates gas and hazardous liquid transmission pipelines, gas distribution systems, including master meters, and also statutorily defined gathering lines.  West Virginia operators must comply with other regulations as well, e.g., FERC, OSHA, EPA, and DEP.

West Virginia Department of Transportation – West Virginia requirements to obtain CDL endorsements.  Agreements made between oil and natural gas operators and government entities to provide funding for road repair and the successes of same.

Overall, the first meeting was a broad overview of the issues that need attention (i.e., a current state of condition), where the Commission is headed, and how it will spend its efforts over the next several months.  The expectation is that future meetings will include detailed discussions on whether the industry can be made safer and, if so, how to achieve it.    

The next meeting is scheduled to take place in Fairmont, West Virginia, on Wednesday, August 26, 2015.  The third, and final, meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, September 16, 2015, in Wheeling, West Virginia.  Additional meetings of the full Commission may be scheduled, and Subcommittee meetings are expected, but not yet scheduled.  The Commission must provide a final report to Governor Tomblin on November 16, 2015.