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Drilling Rigs Return to North Dakota. Will Deadly Bakken Oil Field Accidents Rebound as Well?

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Drilling activity is returning to North Dakota’s Bakken Oil Field, following the worst energy recession in 30 years. But as the oil and gas industry ramps up production once again, will energy producers in the Bakken Shale give more consideration to worker safety this time around?

Bakken Oil Field Workers “Paying for Cheap Gas with Their Lives”

The Bakken Oil Field extends 170 miles from North Dakota into Canada. At the height of the recent energy boom, workers from around the country flocked to North Dakota in search of oil field jobs paying six-figure salaries without an advanced degree. However, those lucrative positions often came with a tragically high price.

According to an analysis conducted by REVEAL in 2015, one oil field worker was killed every six weeks in the Bakken Shale during the boom years. A total of 74 deaths were recorded from 2006 through mid-2015. REVEAL’ s investigation also uncovered multiple factors that had helped to make Bakken “the most dangerous oil field” in the U.S., including weak federal oversight and hiring practices that allowed energy companies to avoid accountability for accidents that left oil field workers injured or dead.

“These workers are paying for cheap gas with their lives and their limbs,” Peg Seminario, director of safety and health for the AFL-CIO, said at the time.

North Dakota Drilling Makes a Comeback

Since 2014, oil prices have fallen from a high of $100 per barrel to about $30 per barrel last year, causing drillers in the Bakken Field and elsewhere to curb their activities. Some were even driven into bankruptcy. As employment in the Bakken Shale fell, so too did the frequency of oil field accidents.  Up until 2015, about half of the work-related deaths investigated by OSHA in North Dakota involved the oil and gas industry. Last year, they accounted for just a third.

Now there are strong signs that North Dakota’s drilling industry is making a comeback, as oil prices rose to over $50 per barrel last fall.  In April, employment in the North Dakota job sector that includes oil and gas workers was up 10% over the previous year. According to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, online job openings also hit a 12-month high.

After so many years of recession, oil field workers desperately need these jobs. It remains to be seen if jobs in the Bakken Shale will continue to extract such a heavy physical toll from the men and women working there.

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