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Working In These Times

Friday, May 23, 2014, 7:00 am

Frack Till You Drop

BY Cole Stangler, Rebecca Burns and Mike Elk

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A worker at a Halliburton fracturing operation in the Bakken Formation, North Dakota. (Wikimedia Commons)  

This month, the AFL-CIO unveiled its annual “Death on the Job” report, which highlights the often-overlooked toll of workplace accidents and fatalities. This year’s biggest takeaway: the dangerous—and deadly—consequences of America’s fracking-fueled oil and gas boom.

In recent years, deaths in the oil and natural gas industry have seen an especially sharp rise. The toll jumped by a stunning 23 percent in 2012 alone. This trend dates back to 2008, when horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” ushered in a new wave of oil and gas drilling across the nation. Fracking “boom towns” in states like North Dakota and Wyoming, rich in the kinds of shale formations that frackers lust after for their oil and gas deposits, have in turn seen a wave of industry-related accidents and health problems.

“The escalating fatalities and injuries in the oil and gas extraction industry demand intensive and comprehensive intervention,” the AFL-CIO’s report reads. “Without action, the workplace fatality crisis in this industry only will get worse as production intensifies and expands.”

Oil and natural gas industry workers regularly face hazards such as burns and exposure to toxic substances, which can lead to serious injuries or even death. But there’s reason to believe that fracking workers face further dangers, the long-term consequences of which may not yet have even begun to manifest fully.

Use of frac sand, which typically has high silica content, is an integral part of the fracking process. In industry-speak, it’s known as a “proppant”: Injected deep into rock formations, frac sand creates fissures in the ground, releasing oil and gas. Recent studies suggest that fracking workers are at particularly high risk of exposure to silica dust from that frac sand. Over time, silica dust exposure can cause cancer, silicosis and other fatal diseases.

But while labor has decried the dangers associated with fracking, some unions have been taking increasingly aggressive stances in favor of the practice. In a bid to reverse devastating job losses, energy and construction unions have entered into labor-management partnerships with the American Petroleum Institute (API) and other industry groups, lining up alongside the same interests that oppose union organizing efforts and tougher safety regulations.

“We hear a lot of commotion from those who want to unnecessarily limit job growth, force higher energy bills on us all and stifle opportunity tied to this abundant domestic energy source that is improving our environment and our standard of living,” declared Dennis Martire, vice president and Mid-Atlantic regional manager of the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) (an affiliate of the AFL-CIO’s Building Construction Trades Department), in an pro-fracking op-ed that he co-authored with a local Pennsylvania-based Chamber of Commerce president. In a recent statement to the Associated Press, Martire called shale drilling a “lifesaver and a lifeline for a lot of working families.”

This raises the questions of whether some unions are taking a contradictory approach to workplace safety in the oil and gas industry: urging intervention to stop accidents while encouraging expansion of a practice that has increased them. Critics say this approach is a self-defeating one. Now, this tension is playing out in a fight over a long-awaited federal rule that would limit workers’ exposure to silica dust.

Unions say ‘frack it’

Silica exposure is one of the oldest known workplace dangers, but the federal standards regulating it are more than four decades out of date, leaving them out of sync with both changes in the nature of workers’ exposure and the science surrounding silica-related diseases. Now, after years of entreaties by workplace safety advocates, there could be a light at the end of the tunnel for silica-exposed workers.

In April, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) concluded public hearings for a new rule that would effectively halve the permissible exposure limits for “respirable crystalline silica”—that is, the particles that, inhaled over time, can lead to silicosis and other diseases. OSHA estimates that the rule would save 700 lives per year.

While the AFL-CIO and a host of other labor groups struggle to ensure the new rule’s quick approval, they’re facing familiar foes: business lobbyists such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Construction Industry Safety Coalition and the American Petroleum Institute (API), which are lobbying OSHA to withdraw the rule. The API, which represents a slew of companies heavily invested in the fracking industry, charges that the proposed regulation would impose new compliance costs that are too painful for businesses to swallow. This is a familiar complaint from an industry famously averse to regulation.

But even as construction and building trades unions battle with the API over the new rule, they’ve aligned with the industry group when it comes to the expansion of fracking.

In 2009, 15 unions, including the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA) the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the Building Construction Trade Department (BCTD) of the AFL-CIO, joined the pro-fracking, pro-Keystone XL “Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee,” billed as “the first time that the oil and natural gas industry and its labor unions have agreed to work together formally.” According to a forthcoming briefing paper from the climate-conscious coalition Trade Unions for Energy Democracy, the alliance “has been the source of numerous pro-fracking resolutions adopted by state-level federations of the AFL-CIO.  … In [multiple] states, unions have stood alongside the Chambers of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the American Petroleum Institute in supporting and promoting fracking.”

Critics say that the partnership has also locked building trades-affiliated unions into a “transactional relationship” with the oil and natural gas industry (as In These Times has reported previously). The API, for instance, was a key sponsor of the BCTD legislative conference this March. Meanwhile, unions have spent millions lobbying for the expansion of oil and natural gas projects that depend heavily on fracking. In New York State, for example, pro-fracking unions such as the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) spent $1.4 million between 2007 and 2013 on lobbying in favor of expanded fracking in the state, according to watchdog group Common Cause. In Kentucky, LIUNA quickly emerged as one of the most prominent champions of the now-stalled Bluegrass Pipeline, a project that would transport natural gas liquids from the shale fields of Ohio to Louisiana’s Gulf Coast.

This relationship doesn’t end with drill-to-pipeline projects, either. More recently, building trades and their affiliates have backed industry efforts to start exporting a potentially lucrative and fracking-derived product from the United States—liquefied natural gas (LNG). Most notably, the BCTD has lobbied heavily for the construction of the hotly contested Cove Point export facility in Lusby, Maryland, siding with terminal operator Dominion Energy against a large protest movement. The United Association of Plumbers, Fitters and HVAC Techs, meanwhile, supports reforms that would speed up the federal LNG export-permitting process. Thanks in large part to this swell of pressure from the building trades, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka offered his broad support for gas exports for the first time in January.  

In all of these cases, construction and building trades unions say they’re motivated by the prospect of well-paid jobs. And indeed, partnerships with the energy industry have helped some unions win contracts to build energy pipelines and infrastructure serving export facilities. LIUNA Vice President Dennis Martire has said that the number of hours worked by LIUNA members on pipeline projects in Pennsylvania and West Virginia as a result of shale drilling increased from 400,000 hours in 2008 to 5.7 million hours in 2012.

But job figures have often fallen far short of industry projections. While industry-financed studies have claimed that fracking creates as many as 31 new jobs per well, a November 2013 analysis by the Multi-State Shale Research Collaborative, a coalition of policy groups who oppose fracking, found that on average, each new well drilled in the Marcellus Shale region between 2005 and 2012 created fewer than four jobs. And when it comes work at drilling sites, one of the most dangerous aspects of fracking operations, the workforce is still almost exclusively non-unionized.  

“For the most part, [fracking jobs] are not good jobs, and they’re highly destructive,” says Joe Uehlein, a former Secretary-Treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department and current director of the Labor Network for Sustainability. “The idea of being for jobs simply because it’s a job, that’s something we have to re-examine.”  

Dust in the wind

Silica-related diseases are typically associated with industries such as mining, construction and masonry. But as the shale boom continues—according to an October 2013 report from Environment America, fracking operations are now under way in 17 states—so, too, do the risks for workers in an industry that’s highly dangerous and still heavily non-union.

Silica-related diseases take far longer to manifest than the burns, broken bones, and the type of fatalities outlined in the AFL-CIO report, but recent evidence suggests that fracking workers are being exposed to alarming concentrations of silica. OSHA and NIOSH issued a hazard alert in 2012 after nearly 50 percent of air samples taken from a field survey of 11 fracking sites in five states were discovered to have silica rates exceeding the current rule’s permissible levels. That’s particularly notable because many safety experts consider the current exposure limit to be inadequate.

“These exposures were, in some cases, 10 times the amount of the allowable limits,” says Peter Dooley, a health and safety consultant for the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) who testified before OSHA last month.

OSHA has said that approximately 25,000 workers at 444 fracking worksites would benefit from the proposed new rule, and estimates that additional protections—including better ventilation, a misting system and enclosed “operator booths” for the most exposed workers—would be required for 88 percent of fracking workers in order to comply with the change.

Concerned with the costs of compliance, business and industry groups are lobbying OSHA to withdraw the proposed new rule. “In drafting the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Congress never intended to protect employees by putting their employers out of business,” the American Petroleum Institute said in its written comments to OSHA, also arguing that while silica exposure does pose a hazard to workers, existing methods of reducing this exposure have been effective.

Meanwhile, a host of labor groups have testified in favor of the new rule, including the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America (LHSFNA), the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department and the International Union of Operating Engineers.   

During API’s April 4 testimony, Walter Jones, associate director of occupational safety and health for LHSFNA, rebutted arguments made by the industry group on a number of points.

Though API has criticized OSHA for relying on insufficient evidence in its rulemaking, Jones notes that the industry group has kept its own data on fracking-related silica exposure—gathered through a survey of the fracking industry, as part of a voluntary safety effort focused on respirable silica—close to the vest. Currently, the API survey results are not available to federal regulators. A spokesperson for the STEPS Network, the API-coordinated safety effort, told In These Times in mid-May that the study was still ongoing, and that the data hadn’t been released simply because there wasn’t yet enough data to make analysis worthwhile.

But LHSFNA’s Jones calls API’s unwillingness to share this existing data “unfair and unfortunate.”  Following the OSHA hearings, he told In These Times, “The issue for me was that API member organizations are out there right now characterizing exposures and looking at controls, and I’d like for them to submit that to the record so that we can have a fuller picture of what’s going on.”

API also contends that silica-related deaths are decreasing, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control. In response, Jones contends, “Fracking is a relatively new phenomenon, and silicosis has a latency period of up to 20 years. This is a case where there are long-term consequences that we [typically] don’t deal with until after the bodies start piling up.”

An unsavory alliance

The fate of the proposed rule still remains uncertain. After extending its initial public comment period this year by nearly two months following pressure from industry groups, OSHA will now continue taking post-hearing arguments and briefs until July, leaving any potential regulation still a long way off.  While LIUNA and a number of other unions can attempt to counter API efforts to slow or weaken the new regulations during the hearing process, they remain key members of the Oil and Natural Gas Industry Labor-Management Committee. To some critics, this strategy—opposing API’s stance on a particular regulation, while allying with it and other industry groups on wide-ranging policy issues—looks a lot like labor shooting itself in the foot.

The new silica rule is the latest in a long line of workplace safety regulations opposed by API. The institute has fought union-led efforts to implement new regulations reducing workers’ exposure to the carcinogenic element benzene, as well as the lead in gasoline. API opposition to such regulatory efforts may have delayed these rules from coming into effect sooner, thereby putting affected workers’ lives at risk. In the same fashion, API’s demand that OSHA withdraw its current proposal on silica exposure could delay the rule’s future implementation.      

Some in organized labor say the oil and gas industry can be made safer—it’s just going to take better regulation and eventual union representation of workers at drill sites.

On a press call discussing the new AFL-CIO report, In These Times asked AFL-CIO Director of Safety and Health Peg Seminario if she believed that labor-management partnerships in the oil and gas industry were productive in light of the sector’s alarming workplace fatality rate.

“I think it is a sector that needs organization, as do many,” Seminario said. “One of the things I would compare is what the experience has been in coal mining, for example. Which is a very dangerous industry where you’ve had a strong union and you have strong government oversight and has made a huge difference. I think we need to … bring that into oil and gas because clearly it's just as hazardous.”

But others point out that the path of labor-management partnerships is unlikely to produce strong regulations. “I don’t recall a single time that API did anything other than obstruct, delay or file lawsuits over the introduction of any worker safety and health program,” says Bob Wages, former president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW). “I can’t understand why [the building trades] would have anything to do with people who absolutely don’t give a shit if people die on the job.”

Moreover, this sort of approach still neglects the industry’s environmental impact, says Bob Wages, whose union mobilized a highly successful labor-environmental partnership during the 1973 Shell Oil Strike.

“The idea that a union will sit back and say, ‘Well, we’re going to cooperate with them because if we’re there, we’re gonna enforce health and safety, and that’s gonna have a positive effect on the environment’—I’ve never seen it [play out] in terms of how the industry responds to any of these concerns,” he says. “That’s just happy talk. There’s no relationship between building [a facility], and enforcing health and safety regulations in that phase of it, and what the industry does generally once it comes to pollution, [flouting] environmental regulations and damaging the environment.”

Some trade unionists have another path in mind: They argue that it’s time to seriously consider moving beyond fossil fuels. Not only is renewable energy generation better for the planet in the long-term, they note, it’s far safer for workers and their communities in the here and now.

The Canadian union UNIFOR, for example, has been at the forefront of such a forward-thinking approach within labor’s ranks, arguing that energy workers must also consider the health of the communities they work and live in. Even though the union represents workers in the oil and gas industry, last November it passed a resolution calling for a nationwide fracking moratorium.     

“We’re going to find a way to build a sustainable future, we’re going to find a way to solve the climate crisis,” says Joe Uehlein of the Labor Network for Sustainability. “Labor will be far better off if it figures out how to get on that train and be a part of that movement, as opposed to sitting back and fighting it the way they often do.”

(In These Times reached out to the offices of the Building Trades Unions and the Laborers' Mid-Atlantic region for comment, but did not receive a response).

Cole Stangler, Rebecca Burns and Mike Elk are Schumann Fellows at In These Times magazine. Read more of Cole's work here, Rebecca's work here, and Mike's work here.

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