Marcellus Shale

Urbina Wheels His Way into Trouble with Latest Shale Story

Last week Ian Urbina came out with the latest in his series of hit pieces on the shale gas industry, otherwise known as his Drilling Down series in the New York Times.  Each successive article seems to require a slightly longer reach than the one preceding it, as Urbina grasps for new material to please his audience. Now, he’s shifted from environmental impacts to workplace safety, with some all too typical twisting of the data in his “Deadliest Danger Isn’t at the Rig but on the Road” story.

My colleague, John Krohn, articulated many of the problems with this article in his rebuttal, but it’s worth reviewing some of these in a little more depth, because Urbina is playing with the numbers.  There’s always more to the story than what gets put to paper when Ian is involved.

The first thing I noticed reading Urbina’s latest story was this assertion:

But the jobs are also hazardous, with fatality rates that are seven times the national average across all industries.

John notes this statement is unsourced, but we find the source in another reference Urbina offers to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) webpage entitled Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) from 2008 and which relates to data from 2003-2006.  That report indicates an annual fatality rate of 30.5 per 100,000 workers (404 fatalities) … approximately seven times the rate for all workers (4.0 per 100,000 workers).  This statistic, absent context, is useless.  It does no more than state the obvious fact some jobs are more dangerous than others and there are a lot more government and retail workers with low fatality rates than there are oil and gas workers with higher rates.  The real question is one of a comparison and trends.

How does the industry stack up in comparison to other enterprises?  The 2010 data for fatal occupational injuries provides much more recent information  (latest available) and indicates there were 107 oil and gas extraction industry fatalities nationwide that year.  This included workers in “oil and gas extraction,” “drilling oil and gas wells” and “support activities for oil and gas operations.”  That was 2.3% of all fatal occupational injuries in the U.S. in 2010.  The rate, of course,  was higher than some other industries but, in absolute numbers, there were far more losses in others.  There were, for example, 689 who died in transportation and warehousing, 312 who perished doing retail related work and 306 who met their end in the course of public administration.  

Here’s how mining, of which oil and gas extraction was merely a subset, stacks up against other industries:

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

So, if mining and natural gas extraction are only in the middle of the pack, at best, how is Urbina able to make his claims?  Well, he relies upon rates rather than numbers, and tries to shock everyone with the realization that working with vehicles and other machinery  is, on a case by case basis, more dangerous than sitting behind your desk at the New York Times.  Who could have guessed that?

Urbina goes on to issue the following statements:

… Nearly a third of the 648 deaths of oil field workers from 2003 through 2008 were in highway crashes, according to the most recent data analyzed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By contrast, highway crashes caused roughly a fifth of workplace fatalities across all industries in 2010.

“The growth of this industry is a big concern because it’s adding so many more trucks on the roads and its drivers don’t have to follow the same rules as others,” said Henry Jasny, a lawyer for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

In 2005, as the drilling boom accelerated, federal labor officials noticed a worrisome trend: fatalities among oil and gas workers rose 15 percent from 2003 to 2004. After investigating, the C.D.C. found that with the growth of the industry, not only were more workers dying but, more surprising, the fatality rate was increasing, meaning the relative risk was rising…

Notice the reference to data for 2003-2004 and how Urbina seamlessly moves from talking about traffic fatalities compared to those for the entire industry, trying to make it seem as if highway fatalities are increasing at a rapid rate when there is no evidence of this.  The latter data comes from the same CDC report, which says “In August 2005, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) asked CDC to investigate a 15% increase in fatalities among oil and gas extraction workers (from 85 fatalities in 2003 to 98 in 2004).”  

However, if one reads further into the report, the actual data for a longer period is offered along with comparisons to industry employment.  Reviewing that data, it becomes obvious there was nothing special going on between 2003 and 2004.  There was a 15% increase in fatalities, but this was partly because the number of workers had also gone up and the following year that number increased again over 10% — but fatalities stayed at 98. This resulted in a 2005 rate that was lower than 2003 (28.97 vs. 29.03).  So, the 15% increase Urbina relies upon was a one year trend – completely reversed the following year.

If one takes a longer view, as is necessary to do any serious analysis, it becomes clear safety is a key to the oil and gas sector — and on that score, it’s getting it done.  The CDC compared fatalities to numbers of industry workers and rig counts.  The former can be very misleading given that many workers are not employed in the field and the methods of counting workers changed between 2002 and 2003, for instance.  The rig counts are a good basis of comparison, though, because they reflect the actual volume of physical activity occurring. Rotary rig counts are available from Baker Hughes and fatality data is also available from the CDC.  Comparing the trend for drilling rigs (CDC looked at both drilling and workover rigs, but this distinction is no longer, apparently, reflected in the counts) with that for fatalities yields the following chart:

Source: CDC and Baker Hughes Rig Counts

One can see the fatalities are; (1) very closely related to the number of rigs, and (2) have declined over time relative to the number of rigs. Urbina’s contentions fall flat compared to the data on what is really happening on the ground (or on the seas, as the data also incorporates off-shore activity).

The main focus of Urbina’s arguments was on highway accidents, suggesting the industry enjoyed special privileges endangering the safety of its drivers.  He says:

Nearly a third of the 648 deaths of oil field workers from 2003 through 2008 were in highway crashes, according to the most recent data analyzed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By contrast, highway crashes caused roughly a fifth of workplace fatalities across all industries in 2010.

He then combines this with a bunch of anecdotes and suppositions with an eye on leading the reader to the conclusion the oil and gas industry is creating a unique safety issue that will be exacerbated by further development.  The data doesn’t support any of it.  Here are the latest statistics from the CDC about highway crash fatalities, from which Urbina gets his data:

CDC Highway Crash Data

CDC Highway Crash Data - From Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report

A careful observer will notice the fatality rate for oil and gas extraction (5.70 fatalities per 100, 000 workers) is about the same as agriculture and forest services (5.59) and less than logging (11.69), wholesale petroleum deliveries (8.57), truck transportation (19.62), taxi and limo services (6.81) and waste management (8.45).  You are more endangered driving a highly regulated cab service, a garbage truck or a farm truck than working for the gas industry.  If you are an ordinary trucker with all the rules applying to your driving that Urbina implies should apply to natural gas, you are 3.44 times as likely to die in a fatal highway crash!  This pretty well destroys the myth of industry exemptions creating a safety issue, doesn’t it?

We also know something else from the source data that went into these calculations – highway accident fatalities associated with the natural resources and mining industry as a whole have generally been declining since 2003 (see chart below):

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

There’s not much evidence of a worsening problem, is there?  It looks like Urbina has fashioned a crisis out of a one-year trend, his own unsupported assumption that exceptions to driving rules create more problems, and a pattern of decline in highway accident fatalities for the very industry he targets.  The crisis is all bogus, and you might say he’s wheeled his way into trouble with the facts by steering his truck onto a road less traveled – less traveled for a reason.

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