Natural gas has gotten a lot of press lately. You may recall T. Boone Pickens’ dramatic 2008 TV ads lamenting America’s reliance on foreign oil. “I’ve been an oil man all my life, but this is one emergency we can’t drill our way out of,” Pickens insisted.

Though natural gas has its detractors, Pickens and its advocates say it is “clean, cheap and abundant.”  And new technology has opened the possibility of extracting natural gas from previously impractical locations. One of the most promising is shale.

The world’s largest shale formation may be Marcellus Shale, a 95,000 square mile layer of mile-deep, latticed rock that underlies much of LIUNA’s Mid-Atlantic region. According to some industry experts, Marcellus Shale has lucrative potential. They draw a comparison with the 5,000 square mile Barnett Shale under Dallas/Ft. Worth, a $10 billion enterprise that directly employs 55,000 workers and supports 108,000 others. Almost 20 times larger, Marcellus Shale could be the basis for significant economic and jobs expansion in the western Mid-Atlantic.

With the industry’s potential for growth, LIUNA is interested in organizing the natural gas companies that are expanding into the area, opening more than 600 new well heads in just the last few years alone.  Also, looking toward the future, LIUNA recognizes the industry’s need to ensure environmentally sound extraction. Indeed, the ability to help companies successfully address these risks and concerns is one of LIUNA’s chief selling points.

To help assess the potential of organizing Marcellus Shale operators, LIUNA’s Vice President and Mid-Atlantic Regional Manager Dennis Martire asked the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division to investigate and summarize the risks faced by natural gas workers and their employers. That assessment, completed in August, outlines six areas of concern:

  • Rigging up: Rigging up is placing and assembling the various parts of equipment that make up the rig and preparing the rig for drilling. It first requires setting up the substructure and installation guardrails and walkways. Then, the power and circulating systems are installed along with any necessary auxiliary equipment.
  • Drilling: This is the actual drilling of the well. During drilling, multiple tasks such as handling tubular, preparing the drilling fluid, preparing the break out pipe, actual drilling and coring lead are hazardous.
  • Tripping Out/In: This refers to the process of removing and/or replacing pipe from the well when it is necessary to change the bit or other piece of the drill string or when preparing to run certain tests in the well bore.
  • Casing Operations: Casing is pipe usually larger in diameter and longer than drill pipe, used to line the hole. Casing operations occur periodically throughout the drilling process.
  • Maintenance Activities: Drilling equipment is subjected to stress and vibration during operations. Maintenance is a necessary and ongoing activity on the drilling site. Proper maintenance prevents premature equipment failure which may cause injuries or fatalities.
  • Well Control: Properly trained personnel are essential for well control activities. Well control includes two basic components: an active component to monitor drilling fluid pressure and a passive component consisting of the blowout preventers (BOPs) . The major concern during well control is a blowout or explosion, which may occur when the earth’s natural pressures exceed those of the drilling forces being performed.

Additional risks are associated with pipeline construction and maintenance.

In addition to the OSH dangers, natural gas production also poses environmental concerns. Successful management of environmental risks is an important concern for gas producers as well as state and federal regulators and one which the LHSFNA supports. Among the environmental concerns with shale production are (1) the proliferation of abandoned wellheads as small pockets of gas are drained and new wells are opened and (2) the use of fracking technology which pumps a proprietary mix of chemicals into a well to break up shale layers to free more gas. According to some environmentalists, the abandoned wells are eyesores and attractive nuisances, and drilling can cause gas or fracking chemicals to seep into local drinking water supplies. These and other environmental concerns – currently, not well evaluated – must be investigated and, if problematic, appropriately addressed.

“Whatever the environmental dangers,” says the LHSFNA’s Senior Safety and Health Specialist Travis Parsons, who prepared the report for the Mid-Atlantic Region, “energy production is going to continue, given our nation’s and the world’s mounting demand. As a health and safety organization, the Fund encourages responsible drilling that is safe for workers, local communities and the environment.  We look forward to helping LIUNA signatory natural gas companies pursue this objective.”

For more information on the health and safety issues associated with natural gas extraction from shale, contact the Fund’s Occupational Safety and Health Division at 202-628-5465.

[Steve Clark]