Op-ed column: A drilling tale of riches, risks, part 2

Last Sunday’s Gazette featured an article about a young man in Ohio who recently was hired for a job

Last Sunday’s Gazette featured an article about a young man in Ohio who recently was hired for a job paying around $1,250 a week. Not bad for a 23-year-old with no experience and only two weeks of training.

I don’t want to disparage the young man’s accomplishment, or wish him any but the best of fortune in life. But I am concerned about what his story — some minor details were buried in the middle — may mean for the rest of us.

These are the details. His new employer is Halliburton. His new job is cementing wells that Halliburton is drilling in a search for natural gas in Northeastern United States. The drilling is part of an extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing.

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You’ve probably heard it called “fracking.” I don’t claim technical expertise in the technique, so I’ll reserve opinion for the moment. What I will comment on right away is that matter of technical expertise.

The young man was prepared for his new job by Retrain America, a company formed only last year, which graduated its first class this month. In only two weeks, Retrain America taught him all he needed, working at Halliburton, to begin cementing wells.

Halliburton was in the news last year after the Deepwater Horizon tragedy. An oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010, killing 11 workers and creating an oil spill whose full effects we still don’t and may never know. It was the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

Failed oversight

A national oil spill commission (it says a lot about our society that we need to have such an entity) ruled early this year that the Deepwater Horizon explosion was caused by several factors. It said blame lay with three companies — British Petroleum, Transocean and Halliburton — and was the result of failed oversight. In short, the three companies were more interested in saving time and money than in enforcing safety regulations.

In listing the factors that led to the Deepwater Horizon explosion and fire, the commission “paid particular attention to the faulty cementing job, performed by Halliburton, at the bottom of the well.”

A faulty cementing job, performed by Halliburton. Recall the young man whose new job began this essay? He is newly hired by Halliburton. His job is cementing wells.

Obviously this is a critical job. And Halliburton is giving it to a 23-year-old man, with no experience in the field, and only two weeks of training. Is something wrong with this picture?

They aren’t drilling for oil in Pennsylvania and Western New York these days. So no one is worrying about oil spills, or raging petroleum fires.

What they’re drilling for is natural gas. The stuff many of us cook with and heat our homes with, because it burns so efficiently. And, as we occasionally notice in the news, if not carefully controlled, it can explode with tragic consequences.

Now, about that fracking business. Fracking is used in exploration for natural gas. Natural gas, in more technical terms, is methane. Want to guess what it was that triggered the Deepwater Horizon explosion, causing those deaths and all that destruction? It was methane. A bubble of methane gas apparently leaked through faulty cement installed by Halliburton, burst through other protective barriers, expanded as it reached the surface, then exploded.

Workers on oil rigs call it whoosh, boom, run. Whoosh is the sound you hear as gas or oil rushes to the surface, boom is the noise it makes when it explodes, and run is what you’d better do as soon as you hear the whoosh.

If you’re on a small artificial island in the Gulf of Mexico when you hear the whoosh, you don’t have much room to run. For workers in the field, that’s the chance you take. Work long hours in a dangerous location, and you can make a lot of money. Or you can get killed. The workers, that is. Management makes a lot money. Period.

Room to run

If you’re in the middle of several hundred acres when you hear the whoosh — say, the Zimmerman farm in Avella, Pa. — you have lots of room to run. When you’ve run far enough, you can stop and watch what happens. In that case, no one was killed. It was merely, as Vanity Fair described it, “a 200-foot-high conflagration that burned for six hours and produced a cloud of thick, black smoke visible 10 miles away.”

New wells in Western and Central New York — assuming the gas is safely extracted — may save us hundreds of dollars on heating and cooking. Energy companies, and top executives in their explosion-proof offices, will make millions of dollars.

Maybe the only explosions will be out in the fields. No one killed, just a lot of delightful afternoon fireworks. Fun for everyone.

Of course, there are other risks. If chemicals poured into the ground as part of the fracking process contaminate our drinking water, for instance, we may be in for troubles that will make us forget the hundred dollars we saved on the heating bill.

Either way, those guys in the explosion-proof offices will make millions of dollars.

Phil Sheehan lives in Scotia. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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