Oil Industry Plans to Keep Workers Safe—by Firing Them and Having Robots Do Their Jobs

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The oil and gas industry is finally acknowledging how dangerous employment can be for its workers after years of touting the sector as a beacon of worker safety. This sudden honesty about the dangers of working in the oil patch coincides with the industry’s new solution to greatly improve the safety of those workers — which is to fire them and replace them with robots.

Similar to oil executives’ fondness for saying their motivation for getting developing countries hooked on fossil fuels is to “lift people out of poverty,” this sudden concern for safety appears more like marketing spin to obscure the fact that the industry’s favorite pitch for new oil and gas infrastructure (Jobs! Jobs! Jobs!) no longer holds up to scrutiny.

Risky Business

Perhaps the most bizarre example of this occured this June at the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) annual conference, which featured a panel called “Technological progress in U.S. tight oil production.” (“Tight oil” refers to oil from shale formations that require horizontal drilling and fracking.) One of the panelists was Stephen Ingram, Vice President of Technology Solutions and Innovation, for oil field services company Halliburton. 

Ingram made the following argument for why the industry was shifting toward automation:

The most unsafe act that we provide as a service company to our employees is getting them to location today. So we’re engineering out the safety issues. Where we are focused right now is not on removing people from location because it derives a lower cost, it’s because the worst thing that we can physically do for our employees right now is drive them from the district camp to the well site. If you ever go out to Midland, Texas, you’re putting your life in your own hands driving up and down the highway.”    

It is true that traffic deaths in Texas have been on the rise since the 2008 fracking boom gripped the state, according to a 2014 investigation by the Midland Reporter-Telegram. However, Halliburton doesn’t suggest addressing the root cause of those accidents: the glut of commercial trucks, often serving frack sites, operating with “potentially life-threatening safety problems like defective brakes, bald tires, inoperable safety lights and unqualified, unfit, or intoxicated drivers.”

Instead, to be safe, Ingram suggests eliminating the jobs at oil and gas wells that require workers to drive there. Which means those workers can look forward to risking their lives on the deadly highways of Texas driving to the unemployment office, but that no longer becomes Halliburton’s problem.

Ingram is simply using the latest industry talking points — although perhaps taking it to the extreme with this example. In June 2018, a similar message appeared in an article about automation of the oil and gas industry on the website Chemical Report

Artificial intelligence can eliminate the health and safety concerns by helping the operators to control critical tasks through automated systems without the need for human presence,” the article reads.

“Without the need for human presence.” Or payroll.

In another article in the Midland Reporter-Telegram (with the exact same dateline as the one in Chemical Report), GE makes the same argument for its work in automating the oil and gas industry. According to a GE employee, “Today’s manual inspection methods can be inherently unsafe…”

A June story in Robotics Tomorrow goes so far as to claim that the death toll from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is what caused the industry to embrace robotics and eliminate the human presence at oil and gas sites: “…it was the Deepwater Horizon fiasco of 2010 that finally kicked the industry into considering the use of automation.”

It’s almost like there is a coordinated effort to get this new message out to the public.

A Unified Industry Message

In a May Wall Street Journal op-ed, Jason Bordoff, the head of the influential (and at least partly oil industry–fundedCenter on Global Energy Policy (CGEP) at Columbia University, highlights how automation and artificial intelligence (AI) will make oil cheaper to produce.

Bordoff writes about the offshore oil industry, which has started adopting automation and AI, and nails the talking points on the head. “Unmanned and remotely operated production platforms substantially reduce costs and improve operational safety,” writes Bordoff. Substantially reduced costs come from paying a smaller workforce.

Bordoff and CGEP are known for pushing industry talking points. Both played a leading role in pushing to lift the U.S. crude oil export ban, using arguments that in hindsight have proven to be deeply flawed. Still, they were consistent with the oil and gas industry message at the time — and in 2015 the export ban was lifted.

A subheadline in a 2016 article in Offshore Technology sums up one of the main ideas behind automating the industry: “Taking the human out of the loop.”

The oil and gas industry certainly is effective at communicating a unified message when trying to sway public opinion. That message right now is that the industry is “engineering out safety” issues due to the inherent dangers of working in the oil and gas industry.

Yet not so long ago, the industry said those dangers didn’t exist. Now, however, shale oil and gas executives are struggling to make fracking profitable, and seem to be turning to labor costs to make that happen.

What Happened to the ‘Exceptionally Safe’ Oil and Gas Industry?

In 2013, Robert Bradley, Jr. was singing a very different tune in an op-ed in Forbes. Bradley heads the industry-funded Institute for Energy Research, which these days mostly just spends time attacking renewable energy. His previous job was at Enron.

Bradley has published a string of pro-industry columns for Forbes, but in 2013 he was all about safety. “You wouldn’t know it from the major media coverage, but the American oil and natural gas industry is one of the safest sectors in operation,” he wrote.

Bradley was still going at it in 2016 with another Forbes column titled, “Media Hype Aside, Energy Industry Is Exceptionally Safe.”

In 2015 the industry-backed front group Energy in Depth published an article attacking Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox for pointing out the oil and gas industry was dangerous. This piece is especially interesting now because it first argues that the industry is safe, but after admitting the oil and gas sector may have its issues, goes on to emphasize the risks are acceptable because they come with the promise of jobs. Energy in Depth says: “Labor unions have called shale a ‘lifesaver’ for working families.”

Just a few years later, the same industry says it is showing concern for worker safety by eliminating those jobs that were previously called “a ‘lifesaver’ for working families.”

The list is long of examples of the oil and gas industry claiming that worker safety is a priority and that the industry is one of the safest. This 2015 video from North Dakota claims that safety is the top priority of the oil industry. And yet the actual industry track record doesn’t back that up.

Industry Isn’t Safe and Worker Safety Still Isn’t a Priority

Sharon Wilson of Earthworks recently explained to E&E News, in a story exploring the risks of harmful gases to workers handling crude oil, where worker safety falls as a priority in the industry. 

“The industry is not at all serious about containing methane,” said Wilson. “They don’t care at all about workers.”

A 2017 E&E News analysis found that “the upstream oil and gas industry has one of the highest rates of severe injuries in the country … By some measures, it has the highest.” That point wasn’t surprising to the former chief of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

This is nothing new. A 2013 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded: “Between 2003 and 2010, the [offshore oil and gas] industry had the highest death toll in the United States.”

The Wall Street Journal recently documented this trend toward automating (and therefore eliminating) many jobs in the oil and gas industry. The story, titled “Oil’s New Technology Spells End of Boom for Roughnecks,” acknowledges that the job of being an oil rig “roughneck” was an “often dangerous life.” 

For a long time, oil and gas workers accepted the many on-the-job risks (including lost fingers and broken limbs) because those dangerous jobs also could pay someone with a high school education $150,000 dollars a year.

And yet more than a few oil and gas industry representatives seem to agree that those jobs are going away. But the idea that those jobs are going away because the industry suddenly became interested in worker safety, rather than, at least in part, cutting many of those high salaries and benefits for workers, is hard to swallow.

After the U.S. military wiped out the village of Ben Tre, Vietnam, in 1968, news headlines quoted a U.S. military officer: “It Became Necessary to Destroy Town to Save It.”

The oil industry is apparently taking a similar approach with its workforce. In order to keep the workers safe, they’ll have to be eliminated.

Main image: Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig on fire in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. The accident killed 11 workers. Credit: U.S. Coast Guard, public domain

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Justin Mikulka is a research fellow at New Consensus. Prior to joining New Consensus in October 2021, Justin reported for DeSmog, where he began in 2014. Justin has a degree in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Cornell University.

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