Last week’s derailment and explosion of an oil train in Casselton, North Dakota was enough to prompt a call for moderation from an unexpected source: Robert Harms, the chairman of North Dakota’s Republican party, who is also a consultant for the energy industry.
Harms told Reuters Thursday that the state needed to take a “moderated approach” after the crash, which didn’t cause any deaths but prompted the evacuation of many of Casselton’s 2,400 residents and burned for more than 24 hours.
“Even people within the oil and gas industry that I’ve talked to feel that sometimes we’re just going too fast and too hard,” Harms told Reuters.
There’s particular reason to be careful with North Dakota’s oil. The state’s Bakken shale produces a form of light sweet crude that the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) warned last week could be especially flammable, either due to particular properties of the oil or the hydraulic fracturing process used to extract it.
“I think it’s a good wake up call for all of us, both local and state officials,” Harms told Reuters, “as well as the people with the oil and gas industry and the transportation industry.”
The costs of the boom to its workers are huge as well. As fossil fuel drilling grows, companies are hiring more workers for the dangerous work of drilling, which claimed the lives of 823 workers from 2003 to 2010, a death rate seven times higher than other U.S. industries. And violence, addiction, and STDs are cropping up in boomtowns where workers are severed from bonds of community and family, but not provided social support.
Even worse, the death rate is rising due to the boom. While the industry hired 23 percent more workers between 2009 and 2012, the death rate went up over 100 percent. Proponents of fossil fuels tout new extraction jobs in the still-recovering economy. But Ryan Hill, head of the oil and gas extraction program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributed some of the spike in deaths to new, inexperienced workers entering the industry.
“During times of high demand like now, there are new workers brought into this industry, and these are workers that may not have relevant training and experience,” Hill told NPR. And drillers “typically work 12- to 14-hour shifts for a week or two consecutively.” Industry critics also allege that the worker shortage means companies are doing less drug testing of the people doing dangerous work.
Flaring, the practice of burning natural gas that drillers simply don’t have the capacity to use or transport, is bad for the climate as well. As long as gas is being pulled from the ground, burning it productively is a better use of its one million cars worth of carbon emissions than flaring it just to light up the North Dakota sky. But companies are too eager to eager to get the oil as quickly as possible to wait and put the proper infrastructure in place.