On average, someone in the Bakken oil fields dies every six weeks – at least 74 people have died on the job there since 2006. But the major oil companies that have profited most from the boom often evade accountability when accidents happen.
Across North Dakota, deeply entrenched corporate practices and weak federal oversight inoculate energy producers against responsibility when workers are killed or injured, while shifting the blame to others. Oil companies also offer financial incentives to workers for speeding up production – potentially jeopardizing their safety – and shield themselves through a web of companies to avoid paying the full cost of settlements to workers and their families when something goes wrong.
Reporter Jennifer Gollan investigates the death of Brendan Wegner and why the Bakken oil fields are so dangerous.
You can also watch our investigation on PBS NewsHour.
Kevin Wegner: The guy told him, you put your time in here and in a year, year-and-a-half, you’ll be up over a hundred thousand dollars a year. For a 21-year-old kid, that’s pretty exciting.
Jennifer Gollan: Brendan got the job because he worked as an electrical lineman and was good with heights.
Kevin Wegner: If you’ve ever seen a workover rig, there’s stacks of pipes in there. His job would be to stand up there and uncouple them or couple them together. And the day of the accident was actually his first day working on the rig.
Jennifer Gollan: A blowout. Oil shot 50 feet in the air. Brendan was trapped. The well’s operator had injected salt water to make the well safe to work on. Even so, the well exploded.
Jebadiah Stanfill, Former Oil Field Worker: Yeah, that looks like the rig site to me.
Jennifer Gollan: Jebadiah Stanfill was working on a nearby rig and rushed over.
Jebadiah Stanfill: I go out there and asked him where everybody’s at and how many are there. He just says, “Derrick man’s dead. The derrick man’s dead.”
That’s when I looked up and saw what I later find out is Brendan burning in the derrick.
Jennifer Gollan: Within hours, the rig was a twisted hulk of smoking steel, pinning Brendan’s body under the collapsed wreck. One other worker died. Another lost his legs and later committed suicide. It was the deadliest accident in the Bakken in the last decade.
OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, launched an investigation that mainly focused on the missing safety equipment.
Eric Brooks is the director of OSHA’s Bismarck Area Office.
Eric Brooks, Director of Bismarck Area Office, OSHA: In this particular instance, you had an employee that was up on the mast. And so now you have a fire and explosion. He doesn’t have anywhere to go because your emergency egress line wasn’t installed. So his only avenue would either have been to jump or try to climb down into the flames.
Jennifer Gollan: Who’s to blame for this accident?
Eric Brooks: First and foremost, we talk about what we call the exposing employer, you know, “I work for you,” that relationship. And that’s where the major accountability holds is with that exposing employer.
Jennifer Gollan: The problem is the exposing employer and the operator of the well are separate companies – which shields energy producers from accountability.
There are many layers of contractors in the oil fields. In this case, Brendan was hired by Carlson Well Service, who in turn was working for Oasis Petroleum North America – they’re part of Oasis Petroleum, based in Houston.
A key way energy companies like Oasis further insulate themselves is to hire what are known as company men. They’re site supervisors – but they’re mostly independent contractors – outside of OSHA’s purview.
Eric Brooks: Company men are essentially the representatives of the oil companies themselves. But ultimately, they are the ones in charge on the sites.
Jennifer Gollan: A sheriff’s deputy interviewed Oasis’ company man Loren Baltrusch hours after the accident.
Sheriff’s deputy: And what’s your role on the workover rig?
Loren Baltrusch: Kinda supervising.
Sheriff’s deputy: But the men do the majority of the work?
Loren Baltrusch: Yeah.
Sheriff’s deputy: OK.
Jennifer Gollan: By using independent contractors to oversee their wells, energy companies like Oasis can avoid penalties when things go awry.
Oasis misjudged the pressure in the well – the root cause of the accident – says the lawyer for Brendan’s parents, Justin Williams.
Justin Williams, Wegners’ Lawyer: All the decisions and all the information with regard to that well were made by Oasis. There was no decisions made that reflected a mentality towards safety.
Jennifer Gollan: Williams says Oasis had ultimate control over the site that day.
Like most companies, Oasis Petroleum typically receives real-time data on well conditions, pressure and progress.
In fact, this email shows that the very well Brendan was working on had been recognized for setting a drilling speed record … just months before.
But OSHA gave Oasis cursory attention in its accident investigation. The attorney for Brendan’s parents says the agency lacks a sophisticated understanding of the oil and gas industry – one of its safety reports on the explosion included a quote straight from Wikipedia.
Jennifer Gollan: How come Oasis wasn’t held accountable for this accident?
Eric Brooks: Oasis doesn’t have exposed employees on the job site – rather, they hired a subcontractor. Now, that might sound like a bunch of legalese, but it is very important.
Jennifer Gollan: In fact, that means regulators could not cite the company. A handwritten note from an OSHA investigator shows that while Baltrusch shut down the well the day before the explosion, the investigator still concluded: “No Oasis employee on site.”
Jennifer Gollan: As a result, while Carlson was fined $63,000, Oasis paid no penalty.
Carlson, Baltrusch and Oasis all declined to be interviewed, but Oasis said the well was safe to work on and sent us this statement:
“Oasis puts worker and environmental safety first … Any suggestion that Mr. Baltrusch or Oasis Petroleum might have knowingly put workers in danger is patently false.”
“The release of gas and the subsequent fire was caused by a kick, or sudden and unexpected flow of gas into the wellbore.”
Jennifer Gollan: There’s another reason top energy companies are not held accountable. Attorney Paul Sanderson says oil field contracts can shield the companies even when they are responsible for accidents.
Paul Sanderson, Insurance Litigation Attorney: If you’re the person responsible for the accident that caused injury, you know, at the end of the day, you should be the person paying those costs.
Jennifer Gollan: Sanderson crafted an anti-indemnification bill similar to ones that passed in other oil states like Texas. But Sanderson says he was outgunned by the oil lobby.
Paul Sanderson: And by killing this bill, they certainly created a system where they are continued to allow them to shift the responsibility for their own negligence onto other parties.
Jennifer Gollan: Safety experts like Dennis Schmitz say that energy companies are drawn to North Dakota because they can sidestep accountability.
Dennis Schmitz, Oil Field Safety Consultant: Literally, you got the fox in the henhouse. It’s easy to see why everybody wants to come to North Dakota and do business, because there is no restrictions.
Jennifer Gollan: And that is one reason the Bakken is so dangerous. Schmitz says it’s often hard for contractors to insist on safety if that gets in the way of production.
Dennis Schmitz: If they are incentivized in the wrong way, it is very difficult to tell the person who literally carries the balance of work for your entire company, “No, we can’t do this” or “No, we can’t do it that way because it’s unsafe.”
Jennifer Gollan: Heading to the site of Brendan’s accident, I could see another rig drilling on the very same spot. The new oil well is less than a hundred feet from the one that blew up. A simple wood cross commemorates the spot where Brendan was killed four years ago.
Jennifer Gollan: His parents reached a settlement with Oasis for an undisclosed amount. But the indemnification helped the oil giant pass on part of these costs to their contractor’s insurance company. Brendan’s father says there’s no real incentive for oil companies to keep workers safe.
Kevin Wegner: To them, there’s just dollar signs coming out of the ground. I don’t think they have any regards to how they’re getting it, and I think they should be responsible for the well-being of the people working on their site.
Jennifer Gollan: And now that the price of crude has collapsed, many in the Bakken fear that the pressure to put speed before safety will only increase.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jennifer Gollan with Reveal in Williston, North Dakota.