Sixty-three-year-old pipeline worker killed in blast in Texas

A pipeline worker was killed in Midland County, Texas, while responding to a leak in the El Paso Natural Gas Pipeline last Wednesday. The worker has been identified as 63-year-old Bud Taylor of San Angelo, Texas, a 30-year veteran of the energy industry and operations manager at Navitas Midstream Partners. The explosion that killed Taylor occurred around 11:30 a.m. and was followed by two others. Four other pipeline workers and two firefighters who have yet to be identified were also injured in the blasts.

The five workers were airlifted Wednesday to University Medical Center in Lubbock, Texas, where Taylor died from his injuries on Friday. According to a hospital spokesman, one worker remained in critical condition and two in serious condition. A fifth worker was released earlier in the week after being treated. Two other workers with less-severe injuries were treated at Midland Hospital.

Taylor attended Crane High School in Crane, Texas, and leaves behind his wife, Rita Seymour Taylor. A former coworker described Taylor on his LinkedIn profile as “a strong leader and very detail oriented…good to work for and will listen to the opinions of others.”

Midland is home to the Permian Basin oilfield, the largest oilfield in the United States, and is crisscrossed by both oil and natural gas pipelines. The causes of the leak, which led to the explosion and the fires that followed, are unknown, according to press reports, but are currently under investigation by pipeline operator KinderMorgan.

KinderMorgan had isolated a part of the El Paso Natural Gas Pipeline as a precaution after it was alerted to the fire drawing near to its line. One of the workers airlifted last Wednesday was a KinderMorgan employee.

Navitas, the company for which Taylor worked, is a midstream oil and gas company, which means that it encompasses facilities and processes that sit between the upstream and downstream oil and gas segments. The midstream segment is separated from upstream and downstream in most oil companies because it is considered a low-risk, regulated type of business. While the movement of gas by interstate pipelines and state-level distribution activities are highly regulated in the US by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), there is virtually no commercial regulation of the midstream gathering and processing sector.

On its web site, Navitas advertises “a full slate of midstream oil and gas services including gathering, treating (dehydration, carbon dioxide and nitrogen), gas processing, and pipeline transportation of natural gas, natural gas liquids, condensate and crude oil” and boasts its ability to “offer producers with a significant speed-to-market advantage.” Its operations are backed by Warburg Pincus, a global private equity firm.

A 2013 paper published in the Journal of Pipeline Systems Engineering and Practice by Richard M. Peekema, titled “Causes of Natural Gas Pipeline Explosive Ruptures,” found that the National Transportation and Safety Board reported large crater-forming pipeline explosive ruptures to be caused by the mechanical failure of defective or damaged pipes. Another cause may include the explosive ignition of accumulated gas leaks in the surrounding air.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), a US Department of Transportation agency, has collected data on more than 3,200 natural gas pipeline accidents since 1987 that have been deemed serious or significant. A serious or significant accident is one that results in a fatality or injury requiring in-patient hospitalization, $50,000 or more in total costs (measured in 1984 dollars), liquid gas releases of five or more barrels (42 US gal/barrel), and/or gas releases that result in an unintentional fire or explosion.

The PHMSA reports findings of investigations into pipeline failures on its web site, which shows that investigations can take at least six months and take several years for their findings to be posted. Common causes of pipeline failures have been found to be mechanical failures, material failures, excavation damage, corrosion, and incorrect operation.

By all accounts, the incident that killed Taylor and injured six others is a serious event. According to its web site, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has filed no violations against Navitas. However, the mining, quarrying, oil and gas extraction industry remains one of the most dangerous fields of work in the US. It has a high rate of workplace fatalities compared to other industries, with 10.6 per 100,000 full-time workers in 2016 as compared to 3.6 per 100,000 across all industries nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries .

The demand for natural gas has been growing for use as an energy source in the US and worldwide. According to the 2017 book Dying to Work by Jonathan D. Karmel, the oil and gas industry in the US grew tremendously in the years from 2003 to 2013, doubling its workforce and increasing the number of drilling rigs by 71 per cent. During this period, oil and gas extraction deaths rose by 27.6 per cent. The total number of deaths in this sector have fallen by more than half since 2014, but this can likely be attributed to a drop in production in the US and is not a sign that the industry is getting safer.

Though oil and gas production in the US has fallen off in the period following 2013, energy extraction companies have continued to reap immense profits even as prices have declined. Cuts to worker safety have prevented companies from taking too large a dip in profits. Companies have been known to offer “speed bonuses” to workers to produce more in less time. Like other industries that have become increasingly dangerous since the 2008 Wall Street bailout, oil and gas companies have cut back on maintenance, training, and safety measures in order to cut costs, and have benefitted from the stripping away of workplace and environmental safety regulations by successive Republican and Democratic administrations.

While corporations and Wall Street have raked in enormous profits in the aftermath of the 2008 bailouts and implementation of quantitative easing policies, workers’ lives have been put ever more at risk. The total number of workplace fatalities increased by 14 percent from 2009 to 2016—from 4,551 total deaths in 2009 to 5,190 in 2016—the latest year for which data is available, after a slight decline from 2006 to 2008.