Author(s): Ashley Smith. Published on March 2, 2015.

SHORTLY BEFORE MIDNIGHT ON MARCH 4, 2014, a massive explosion and fire broke out at an oil and gas drilling site near Greeley, Colorado, about an hour north of Denver. The blast rocked nearby homes, rousing neighbors out of bed. Flames could be seen for miles.

The fire was caused by flowback water, a mixture made up of water, debris, and flammable substances that flows to the surface of an oil well when the well is pumped. One of the workers on site had parked a truck too close to the well, and a spark from the vehicle’s catalytic converter ignited the mixture, according to Dale Lyman, fire marshal for the Greeley Fire Department, one of several departments that responded. Two workers at the site were injured.

The blaze presented challenges for firefighters, Lyman said. Firefighters needed both water and foam to suppress the fire, but neither was available on site; emergency crews had to wait for tankers to bring in water, as well as for a foam trailer to be trucked in. For a department more accustomed to fighting structure fires, it was an incident that required not just the proper suppressants, but the right training, equipment, and tactical approach to handle the fire safely and effectively.

The risk of fire is elevated where oil and natural gas drilling take place, and the flowback fire was just the latest in a string of similar fires linked to the region’s drilling boom. Greeley is in Colorado’s Weld County, which is situated above the oil-rich Niobrara Shale; there are 1,600 active oil wells in the county, and 400 in Greeley alone. According to Lyman, over roughly the last five years, those sites have been the scene of about a dozen fires. They were incidents the 110-person Greeley Fire Department was not initially prepared to handle because the drilling boom happened so quickly, he said.

Weld County is not alone. Advances in oil and gas drilling and exploration, such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and directional drilling, have created a dramatic increase in oil and gas extraction activities in many parts of the United States, from Pennsylvania to Montana and beyond, bringing with them activities and processes that can be unfamiliar to local fire response agencies, many of which are staffed by volunteers trained primarily in fighting structure fires. Departments often don’t have enough water, equipment, firefighters, training, or expertise to deal with fires when such a large amount of flammable material is concentrated in one area.

Neal Nanna, chief of the Harmony Volunteer Department in western Pennsylvania, where drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale has increased significantly in the last five years, said departments have had to adapt to a completely different type of firefighting. “Regular firefighting and industrial firefighting are two different things, and they have really never intermingled—but now we’re forced to make that happen,” he said. “You can’t just run into these fires—you have to be trained. And there is not a lot of training available yet because it’s a such a new thing.”

Regulating oil and gas drilling sites

As part of an effort to boost domestic energy production and reduce the nation’s dependency on foreign supplies, oil production in the U.S. has been on the rise since 2008 and is now at a near-record high, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Total oil production averaged an estimated 9.2 million barrels per day in December 2014, and it is projected to reach an average of 9.3 million per day in 2015. That would be the second highest annual average on record, topped only by the 9.6 million barrels produced per day in 1970. To put current oil production in perspective, the United States is now producing nearly the same amount of oil as Saudi Arabia, the world leader.

That increase is due to the melding of two advanced drilling techniques that are used to stimulate production of oil and gas wells: hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and directional drilling. Fracking involves using a pressurized mix of water, sand, and chemicals to break up rock formations and extract oil and gas, while horizontal drilling involves extending vertical wells horizontally to extract oil and gas from a larger area. The two techniques are often used together to make well sites more profitable or to extract oil and gas from reserves that were once unreachable. Advanced extraction techniques aren’t inherently more dangerous than older extraction techniques, Lyman said, but the proliferation of drilling has increased the number of accidents.

Fire by the numbers
Annual average statistics for fires at U.S. oil or gas fields reported to local fire departments, 2007–2011

Structure fires................................30
Vehicle fires..................................50
Outside or unclassified fires..................600
(including vegetation fires; special outside fires including
outside storage, equipment, outside gas or vapor combustion
explosions, or other outside fires; outside rubbish fires;
and unclassified fires)

Total annual average fires.....................680
Total annual average civilian deaths...........1
Total annual average civilian injuries.........5
Total annual average direct property
damage.........................................$63.4 million

No data exists on the number of fires and explosions in recent years at these new drilling sites. However, according to an EnergyWire review of federal labor statistics, the oil and gas industry as a whole has more deaths from fires and explosions than any other private industry. It is responsible for 10 percent of all workplace fatalities from fires and explosions—13 deaths in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available—despite employing less than 1 percent of the total workforce, according to EnergyWire.

The regulatory environment for oil and gas drilling sites is complex. The lead standards developer for these processes is the American Petroleum Institute (API), a Washington D.C.-based industry group. API sets safety standards that most, if not all, states and many federal agencies have adopted as regulations, according to David Miller, director of the organization’s standards program. API recently developed a set of guidelines and recommended practices that address, among other topics, how drilling companies should interact with and inform communities and first responders, although those documents have not yet been formally adopted by states and federal agencies, Miller said. However, many states and several federal agencies also have separate regulations. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), though it does not have a set of standards specifically for the oil and gas industry, regulates drilling sites under its General Duty Clause, which applies to many industries.

Dennis Schmitz, chair of the MonDaks Safety Network, a nonprofit that promotes safety at drilling sites in the Bakken Shale region oil fields in North Dakota and Montana, estimates that 20 to 30 percent of all accidents on well sites are flash fires or explosions. Schmitz, who has 15 years of field experience in the oil and gas industry, including working on pipelines and inspecting cargo, said he believes regulations could be further improved.

“OSHA has been saying for a long time that they’ll come up with an oil and gas industry standard, but we haven’t seen it,” he said. “In an ideal world, OSHA and the industry would sit down and come up with a mutually agreeable standard that would protect people and also wouldn’t hurt the industry.”

Responder challenge

Gas Well Emergencies _opt1

Firefighters in Western Pennsylvania at a training facility that includes the types of industrial hazards they can encounter during fires at oil and gas drilling facilities.

PHOTO: Firefighter OZ Photography and More

OSHA currently has standards that seek to prevent fires on drilling sites and injuries related to fires. It requires that drilling companies create exit routes, emergency action plans, and fire prevention plans. It requires that workers have access to flame-resistant clothing, and it outlines how flammable and combustible liquids should be stored. API also has several standards designed to prevent fires and explosions. However, there are no guidelines on how the industry must respond in the event of a fire. Some drilling companies have firefighting equipment and staff on site, but even when they do, local fire departments carry the burden in the event of an emergency.

For Nanna, the volunteer fire department chief in Pennsylvania, the drilling boom has certainly altered the course of his daily work life. There are 46 active well heads in the 46 square miles his department covers, along with two compressor stations and a processing plant.

There was no manual dropped on Nanna’s desk to prepare for fires at drilling sites, so as drilling activity started to pick up, Nanna realized he was going to have to do his own research on how to prepare for and fight fires at well sites. His first step was to contact the drilling companies to seek information about their sites. He wanted to find out exactly what kind of fire risks the sites posed, and what it would take to extinguish a fire should one break out. Nanna said he was also intent on creating a rapport with the drilling companies that would facilitate working together.

Firefighting on drilling sites is complex for a number of reasons. Hydraulic fracking and directional drilling have increased fire hazards, in part because there can be many more storage tanks and well heads in a single location. In the past, drilling sites typically had just one well and two tanks on site; now there can be as many as 10 wells connected to a single head. There are flammable liquids such as biocides and acids on drilling sites, some of which are in concentrated form. Fracking fluid itself is highly flammable, and there are vehicles and machines spread across the sites that can act as ignition sources. Drilling sites are often in remote areas where access to water and foam is difficult. The sites can also be congested with equipment and difficult to access.

Further complicating firefighting efforts is the fact that many states allow drilling sites to closely abut existing structures such as homes and schools. Lyman said he has responded to well fires where homes were less than 200 feet away. Colorado has since passed a law expanding the required setback to 500 feet, but there was an unsuccessful push in 2014 to quadruple that, in what became a contentious battle. Many states where drilling is common have lesser setback requirements, or none at all.

Once Nanna figured out what he was up against, he asked the drilling companies to provide the additional resources he needed—and they obliged. At one site, Nanna figured out that, in the event of a catastrophic fire, he would need access to 2 million gallons of water—well beyond the capabilities of his department. The drilling company agreed to bring in a tank that would store that amount of water on site. Nanna also asked the drilling companies to pay for fire department training, and they have, at a cost of $30,000 per weekend class. Even now, Nanna says he is in contact with the drilling companies on a daily basis.

“I honestly believed our fire department is one of the best trained in the state of Pennsylvania, only because this was dropped in our backyard,” he said. “We felt that we wanted to be proactive about it instead of reactive. Look at the West Fertilizer explosion in Texas in 2013—the fire department didn’t have all the information it should have, and it cost people lives. We don’t want to do that.” There have been “two or three” well fires in Nanna’s coverage area since the drilling boom began, he said, but no fatalities or major injuries.

NFPA codes + standards

While NFPA does not have codes that specifically address oil and gas drilling sites, a number of documents contain provisions that can be applied to drilling sites. For example, NFPA 30, Flammable and Combustible Liquids Code, describes how fuel storage tanks must be constructed and how close they can be to buildings and roads, according to Bob Benedetti, staff liaison for the code. OSHA maintains a list of NFPA standards that apply to the gas and oil industry, which includes NFPA 30 and nine others, among them NFPA 1, Fire Code; NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®; NFPA 400, Hazardous Materials Code; and NFPA 2113, Selection, Care, Use, and Maintenance of Flame-Resistant Garments for Protection of Industrial Personnel Against Flash Fire. Other codes not on OSHA’s list, such as NFPA 11, Low-, Medium- and High-Expansion Foam, would also apply to well fires.

Drilling Tools
OSHA’s list of NFPA codes and standards that apply to oil and gas drilling sites

For the most part, setting safety standards for oil and gas extraction has been left to API because it’s part of the group’s expertise, Benedetti said. “Nobody, to my knowledge, has requested that NFPA initiate a project to write guidelines for any kind of petroleum drilling operations, fracking or otherwise,” he said.

Lyman, the Greeley fire marshal, said he’s considering proposing just that—that the NFPA Standards Council explore creating a new committee to work on a standard for oil and gas extraction sites. Although API and various regulatory bodies have standards, there’s no single set of standards in one place for fire officials to consult, he said.

“As a fire officer and code enforcement official, I believe it would be beneficial to bring stakeholders from the fire service and the industry to the table to create a uniform standard that all stakeholders would have a voice in creating,” Lyman said. “In my experience in researching the codes, there is no one resource to address these sites, and we have turned to bits and pieces of existing codes and standards and industry best practices.”

Ken Willette, division manager of Public Fire Protection at NFPA, said a uniform standard like the one Lyman describes is within the realm of possibility. NFPA typically does not compete when another accredited standards organization like API has developed best practices, he said, but if fire officials ask for additional standards, NFPA’s Standards Council could consider the request. So far, he said, no proposals have been brought to NFPA by fire officials.

“NFPA doesn’t decide which standards to create—we generally react to members of the public who come to us,” Willette said. “We could look at producing a training standard if fire departments come to us and say, ‘We need help preparing for well fires.’”

Meanwhile, Lyman monitors the activity in his corner of Colorado as best he can, well by well, driller by driller. While Lyman’s department had knowledge of well-site hazards before the latest extraction boom—drilling has taken place in the area since the 1980s—he said it was clear to him that the department would have to be proactive in identifying hazards and finding solutions before it encountered a catastrophic event. He contacted drilling companies for information, toured drilling sites, and worked with drilling companies that provided on-site foam trailers and other firefighting equipment. One company donated equipment to the department’s fire training facility.

Even so, accidents still occurred. In 2007, a tank at an oil drilling site exploded and caught fire, shooting flames 30 feet into the air. Four jurisdictions, including Greeley, responded. A 31-year-old worker at the site was severely burned and later died. The cause of the fire, like the one in 2014, turned out to be fumes from flowback water. The flammable liquid came in contact with an ignition source—a portable pump operating on the site—and caused a flash fire. Firefighters had to bring in foam to contain the flames, then poured water on the tank for about another 20 minutes until it cooled. Although the fire was close to nearby homes, it was contained without any damage to those structures.

That fire was the first Greeley fire officials faced after the drilling boom began, and it served as a catalyst to better partner with drilling companies to collect information and share resources. Lyman recommends that other departments do the same—contacting local drilling companies, sharing safety information, and arranging pre-incident planning tours of the sites—to be prepared for an emergency.

As Lyman put it, “In our jurisdiction, we went out of our way to make sure that, as a community, we were prepared to fight a fire.”

ASHLEY SMITH is a freelance writer in Boston.