The expansion of unconventional oil development has catalyzed a new and not fully-understood set of risks to the safety of Californians. Many of the substances involved in the fracking process, including hydrofluoric acid, silica sand, and highly explosive crude oil, create inherent risks to workers in the oil extraction industry as well as to communities adjacent to well sites and transportation routes. This page highlights the main threats that advanced oil and gas production techniques pose to the health and safety of California residents.
Oil By Rail
Increased flexibility and lower capital costs, alongside public outcry against the proposed Keystone Pipeline, have oil companies shipping oil by rail in record amounts. Jumping from 9,500 carloads in 2008 to 400,000 carloads in 2013, the explosion in railroad shipping has raised concerns among state regulators about the state’s response capacity in the case of an accident. According to the California Energy Commission (CEC), the volume of crude oil imported to California by rail has skyrocketed from 45,491 barrels in 2009 to 6,169,264 barrels in 2013. A rail industry representative has testified that none of the tank cars that are currently carrying Bakken crude oil are adequate to transport the highly flammable product.
As the volume of rail shipments to California has escalated enormously in recent years, so have the dangers. In 2013, more oil spilled from trains than in the previous four decades combined. The 1.15 million gallons of spilled crude oil placed our natural environment at serious risk, jeopardized property values, and threatened the safety of communities. That number data does not include the damaging 1.5 million gallon spill in Quebec that killed 47 people and destroyed half of a town’s downtown core. The explosion also contaminated the Chaudiére River with 26,000 gallons of crude oil.1 And the trend is only continuing, with officials projecting an increase from 3 million barrels per year to 150 million barrels per year by 2016, or 25% of crude oil processed in California. This projected increase assumes the timely construction of several large oil-by-rail facilities.
Oil by Pipeline
To accommodate the draw of California refineries, cities in California are contemplating building more oil terminals and rail-to-pipeline facilities. The East Bay city of Pittsburg is still considering a proposal by WesPac to create a large oil terminal to handle oil imported by ship, pipeline and railroad. A decision on that facility isn’t expected until 2015, at the earliest. The center would handle up to 375,000 barrels per day, including the dangerous and volatile Bakken crude that was the cause of the massive explosion in Quebec. Concerned citizens have fought the the proposed center alongside California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who authored a letter condemning WesPac for violations of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Attorney General Harris faulted the proposal for not disclosing the type of oil to be refined, analyzing air quality impacts, addressing the risk of accidents, or identifying feasible alternatives and mitigation strategies.2
The dangers of transporting oil come in the form of leaks, explosions, and crashes. The past year’s spike in rail crashes have caused the federal government to initiate an emergency investigation into the risks of transporting crude oil by rail.
A highly controversial project in Bakersfield to increase transporting capability in the epicenter of California’s oil, Kern County, recently received its first shipment of oil by rail. The trains headed to Bakersfield are known as unit trains, which are a full mile long and hold an astounding 70,000 barrels. This facility in Bakersfield is designed to handle 7% of California’s oil supply, an extremely large increase in the scope of oil-by-rail in California.
There are a variety safety risks associated with extracting unconventional oil, particularly for those working in this industry. Many industry jobs require frequent contact with dangerous chemicals and industrial processes.
Hydrofluoric acid, commonly used in acid fracking and matrix acidization, is one of the most dangerous chemicals in commercial use. It is a fast-acting acid that is highly corrosive to human tissue. Contact can cause severe burns, internal organ damage and death. In 2013, the United Steel Workers published a report warning the public about the dangers of hydrofluoric acid and calling for refineries to stop using this chemical.
Some companies project that 80% of Monterey Shale’s wells will require acid jobs, meaning large amounts of acid will be transported around the state and pumped underground. The dangers of hydrofluoric acid extend beyond the workplace to communities near transit routes. Trucking accidents, leaks, or spills of hydrofluoric acid could create a cloud of dense vapor that would cause burns, respiratory illness, and if left untreated, death.3 Learn more about unintended economic and human cost.
Still, despite these immense risks to human and community health, the state’s interim regulations allow oil companies to use acids in concentrations of 7% or less without any permit or regulation.
In addition to the chemical threats facing workers and surrounding communities, unconventional oil extraction also exposes workers to silica sand and dangerous industrial work environments.
Fracking companies are using increasing amounts of silica sand in the unconventional oil extraction process, an average of 25 rail cars per well.4 As this sand is moved around the well site and injected into wells, hazardous airborne dust is created and kicked up into the air. In 2012, the US Occupational Safety and Health Commission issued an official Hazard Alert that “workers may be exposed to dust with high levels of respirable crystalline silica during hydraulic fracturing.” Their analysis found that 47% of the collected samples exceeded legal safety limits for silica exposure.
Although some producers characterize silica particles as harmless ‘dust,’ epidemiologists have stated that it is, in actuality, an extremely hazardous substance. Workers who breathe silica daily are at greater risk of developing silicosis, lung cancer, tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and autoimmune disease. Every year in America, nearly 700 workers die of silicosis or lung cancer due to high-exposure, and nearly 1,600 workers suffer from silica related diseases.
Additionally, a recent study found that workers at fracking sites in Colorado and Wyoming may be exposed to extremely high levels of benzene, at levels ranging up to an order of magnitude greater than recommended by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. Benzene is a known carcinogen, and these findings suggest that much more needs to be done to study its impact on-site oil and gas industry employees. However, California has done little to examine the safety of workers at enhanced oil operations.
Surrounded by dangerous industrial processes, workers in the oil extraction industry are at increased risk for workplace fatality. In fact, employees who work on fracking operations have an on the job fatality rate seven times higher than the average worker.5 According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 663 workers across the nation in oil field-related industries were reported killed in the drilling and fracking boom from 2007 to 2012. In North Dakota, the increase in fracking has been accompanied by growth in the state’s on job fatality rate, making the oil and gas extraction industry in North Dakota’s fatality rate six times the national average.6
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is only required to investigate accidents that result in death or in the hospitalization of three or more workers, in both onshore and offshore drilling. For example, in Texas, only 150 investigations were launched out of 18,000 work-related injuries in the past six years.
With the mass amounts of water and sand being transported to and from the oilfield, truck drivers have demanding and dangerous schedules. In part due to exemptions for oil field truckers in national highway rules, highway accidents are the single largest cause of fatality in the oil and gas industry, and one of the largest risks to workers and communities close to enhanced oil recovery operations. Drivers report repeatedly being pressured to driving past the 14-hour legal limit, with some drivers reporting up to 20 hours per shift. Both the Center for Disease Control and the National Transportation Safety Board have spoken out against the exemptions, citing the hundreds of fatalities and the risks posed to fellow commuters.
- Safe Rail Transport of Crude Oil ↩
- AG Kamala Harris’ Letter on Recirculated EIR for WesPac’s Energy Infrastructure Project ↩
- The Most Dangerous Chemical You’ve Never Heard Of ↩
- In Fracking, Sand is the New Gold ↩
- CDC’s NIOSH Database of Occupational Health Risks from Oil and Gas Extraction ↩
- Death On The Job: The Toll Of Neglect ↩