Report finds sweeping blame and negligence for fatal Oklahoma rig explosion

An independent federal review of a 2018 fatal oil rig explosion in Oklahoma determined there is sweeping blame to be shared by the entire energy sector and government for a woeful lack of oversight and regulations for onshore oil and gas drilling.

The federal Chemical Safety Board found that the blowout preventers failed at the drilling site, but that dangerous well conditions had built up over several hours without proper safety oversight. And rig system alarms were disabled by the workers.

The well fire, which swept through a drilling rig owned by Houston-based Patterson-UTI, was the deadliest U.S. accident in the oil and gas industry since the 2010 Deepwater Horizon tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico killed 11 workers.

“Our investigation found significant lapses in good safety practices at this site,” said CSB interim Executive Kristen Kulinowski. “For over 14 hours, there was a dangerous condition building at this well. The lack of effective safety management at this well resulted in a needless catastrophe.”

The Chemical Safety Board, an independent federal agency charged with investigating industrial chemical accidents, typically only gets involved in the largest, deadliest industrial disasters. The board averages about six investigations a year.

The well was operated by Red Mountain, a small Oklahoma oil and gas company. Patterson-UTI ran the drilling operation as Red Mountain’s main contractor.

Three of the five killed were Patterson-UTI employees, including one Texan. The victims are Josh Ray of Fort Worth; Cody Risk of Wellington, Colo.; and Matt Smith, Parker Waldridge and Roger Cunningham, all of Oklahoma. Ray, Smith and Risk were Patterson-UTI employees.

Patterson-UTI had a spotty safety record in the past decade but, under new leadership, it had improved its safety record in recent years.

The explosion was setback to Patterson-UTI’s efforts to repair what through much of the last decade was one of the worst safety records in the industry. During the 2000s, Patterson-UTI had more fatalities at its work sites than any other U.S. energy company. A particularly scathing 2008 report from a U.S. Senate committee chaired by late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts found that a dozen workers died at the company’s Texas drilling sites alone from 2003 through 2007.

The CSB report determined that the explosion was caused by the failure of two preventive barriers – the primary barrier and the backup blowout preventer. There was pressure built up by the drilling mud and an explosion became possible because of a large quantity of natural gas that entered the well. Important safety operations called “flow checks,” which are used to determine if gas is in the well, were not performed.

The report faulted improper planning, training, equipment, skills and procedures.

Oil and gas well drilling is exempted from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s process safety management standard, which governs safety for chemical plants. General OSHA standards fail to address the unique safety hazards associated with drilling for oil and gas, the report said. The CSB is urging OSHA to develop effective oversight that addresses the hazards unique to the onshore drilling industry.

OSHA fined Patterson-UTI nearly $75,000 last year. Multiple lawsuits remain pending.

The CSB said Patterson-UTI failed to maintain an effective alarm system. Likely deemed an unnecessary nuisance, the entire alarm system was disabled by the rig workers. The report said the lack of alarms contributed to workers being unaware that flammable gas was entering the well.

“As a result, the workers had little knowledge of the impending disaster,” CSB investigator Lauren Grim said.

Three of the workers killed were in the rig’s drilling cabin, called the dog house. The two others were on the rig floor and ran into the cabin. All five bodies were found in the dog house.

“All five of the workers inside the driller’s cabin were effectively trapped because fire blocked the driller’s cabin’s two exit doors,” Grim said.

There’s no guidance to ensure an emergency evacuation option is present on the rigs, nor are workers in the cabin protected from fire hazards.

The CSB is calling on the industry trade association, the American Petroleum Institute, to address design improvements needed to protect dog house occupants from fires. The report also asks API to create guidance for an alarm management system for the industry.

In a prepared statement, Patterson-UTI said it fully cooperated with the investigation and that its deepest sympathies are with the families of the deceased workers.

“As part of Patterson-UTI Drilling’s continuous safety improvement process, immediately following the accident we began evaluating what policies, procedures and training could be improved, and we have proactively taken measures designed to prevent an accident like this from ever happening again,” the company said. “While Patterson-UTI Drilling does not agree with all of the findings in the report, Patterson-UTI is nevertheless evaluating what additional policies, procedures and training could be implemented to address the key issues raised in the report.”

The onshore shale boom has taken off in the last decade from Texas to North Dakota, leading to record-high and world-leading oil and gas production volumes in the U.S.

“As onshore oil and gas extraction grows, it is imperative that the industry is using proven and reliable safety standards and practices,” Kulinowski concluded. “If some of these safety practices had been in place, this tragedy could have been averted. Our report lays out a strong case for recognizing the hazards in this industry and ensuring the safety of its workers.”

The full version of this article first appeared on the Houston Chronicle – an Energy Voice content partner. For more from the Houston Chronicle click here.

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