While industry and police investigators have only begun to look into the cause of the Greene County natural gas well explosion that killed a West Virginia man last week, the incident raises questions about the safety standards protecting workers at well and pipeline operations.
Pennsylvania has found itself at the center of two of the biggest energy booms in U.S. history, first with the development of coal mining and, more recently, natural gas found in the Marcellus shale formation that spreads across most of the state.
According to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Pennsylvania has 43,025 active gas wells, with 2,524 of them in Fayette County and 1,544 in Greene. The Pennsylvania Coal Alliance reports that Pennsylvania is the fourth-leading coal-producing state, with 39 underground mines and 377 surface mining and reprocessing sites in operation.
A primary concern of both industries is worker safety, but the road to establishing regulations and enforcements for the protection of workers has been different between the industries.
The first federal statute governing mine safety was passed in 1891, establishing minimum ventilation requirements for underground mines and prohibiting the employment of children under age 12. Related laws and regulations continued to evolve over the years until 1977, when the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, which established the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), was passed. Since the MSHA was established, mining fatalities have dropped from 139 yearly to 20 in 2012, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor.
By contrast, the regulations governing safety for gas industry workers have followed a less linear path, something that Andrew Paterson, vice president of technical and regulatory affairs for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, attributes to the nature of the work itself, which encompasses a variety of different activities.
Regardless of the type of work being done, Paterson said, “Safety underpins everything that happens on the site.”
According to Paterson, the goal of gas companies is to create a culture of safety among workers.
“You’re trying to get people to do things as a good habit, without thinking about it,” he said. “It’s really important that people think of these things as second nature.”
Paterson, who has decades of experience in the field, said each company has a safety operator responsible for overseeing work practices, and each employee is trained to speak up if something appears unsafe. He said a typical day begins with a safety meeting to make sure workers are aware of the hazards specific to the job each day.
Extracting natural gas and bringing it to market involves two general phases that contain several types of activities governed by different and sometimes overlapping regulatory agencies.
As Paterson pointed out, first, the wells must be drilled, which begins with construction and earth-moving activities. Then, the drilling itself takes place, followed by the hydrofracturing or “fracking” (also known as well completion), and finally production.
Generally, Paterson said, the safety of drilling operations is regulated by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which outlines and enforces safety standards for each of the activities that make up the drilling phase. Additionally, he said the DEP has a hand in safe drilling standards, as the protection of the environment runs parallel with the protection of workers.
After the wells are drilled, pipelines are constructed and maintained. The safety of pipeline distribution and transmission operations is governed by OSHA as well, in addition to several other agencies.
The federal Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) oversees transmission pipelines. The National Transportation Safety Board also investigates and reports on pipeline incidents, and the Transportation Security Administration maintains a close watch on interstate and international pipelines, particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Also, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which handles permitting for interstate pipelines, bases its approvals in some part on safety and security provisions with respect to pipeline routing and safety standards.
With all those different agencies having a hand in the enforcement of safety regulations, Paterson said, the key is good leadership at each work site.
“When you have a group of people at a well site, you have to know who is in charge,” he said. Different people will be in charge as the operations move from one phase to the next, and Paterson said, “When you hand it over, you make sure it’s clear (who’s in charge).”
One element that sets apart the trajectory of coal mining regulations and gas industry regulations is the unionization of employees.
Coal miners began unionizing in the mid-19th century, and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), founded in 1890, was instrumental at every step of the way in pushing for the enactment of federal regulations pertaining to coal mining safety. By contrast, the gas industry may have unions that represent different workers in different phases, but no single entity represents Marcellus gas workers in the state or nationwide.
Phil Smith, communications director for the UMWA, said, “There is no question that in any workplace, having a union on your side is better than not.”
That’s especially true in industrial workplaces, he added.
There are safety protocols and regulations in place to protect the workers at well sites and on pipelines, as well as a handful of federal and state agencies. But, Smith says, the only way to compel companies to follow the rules is by way of an agency with the resources and will to enforce them.
“If nobody enforces (the law),” Smith said, “it doesn’t matter what the penalties are.”
Regardless of the industry in question, Smith said, there are three elements that contribute to a safe workplace — a company that is willing to follow the law, a government that is willing to enforce the law and a workforce willing to speak out about safety issues without fear of negative recourse.
He said when there are safety-related incidents at a work site, there has to be someone willing to speak out, to seek the assistance of regulatory agencies.
In the coal mining industry, Smith said, “No regulation happened in a vacuum. Someone had to die in order for that to happen.”