GILLETTE - Two Wyoming men lost their lives in separate drilling rig accidents in the Pinedale Anticline during the past two weeks. Those in the industry say the timing is cause for concern.
But one drilling company says seasonal drilling restrictions to protect wildlife are not to blame, and neither is a shortage of experienced rig workers.
"Yes, there's pressure to drill as fast as possible. But it's not beyond safety. There's no compromise. That's the bottom line," said Patrick Hladky, operations manager for Cyclone Drilling Inc.
Cyclone worker Leroy Fried was struck by a support beam and died while working on a rig Monday. Less than two weeks before, Joshua D. Riedel was killed on a Nabors Drilling rig. Both accidents are still under investigation by the Office of Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
Investigators are not yet releasing information about the exact causes.
Both accidents happened in the Pinedale Anticline where natural gas companies are hoping to punch as many wells as they can before November. That's when the "no surface occupancy" season begins so the drilling activity doesn't interfere with pronghorn migration, sage grouse and other wildlife.
Some in the oil and gas industry have suggested safety might be compromised in a rush to produce natural gas while the market is ripe. Drilling activity seems to have grown beyond the area's limited pool of workers.
But Hladky insists there's no excuse.
"I don't think the drilling season is the problem," Hladky said. "There is outside pressure to drill, but it doesn't make you go faster."
Monday's fatality was the first ever in Cyclone Drilling's 29 years of business. Hladky said the industry has come a long way to improve safety in that time. Drug testing is a pre-employment standard. Employees must be OSHA certified before setting foot on a rig. Hiring and training is part of the daily routine.
Drilling companies must also abide by the safety rules of Shell, Anschutz, Anadarko or any operator that hires them to drill a well. Last year, Cyclone bought a bus and gutted it out to turn it into a mobile, safety-training classroom. It is currently parked at a Cyclone rig in the Pinedale gas field.
Hladky said two fatalities in succession might look like a safety epidemic. But in reality, the industry is working more man hours and reducing its accident rate at the same time.
According to the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC), U.S. onshore drillers in 2000 had 8.27 "incidents" - defined as illness or injury - for every 200,000 man hours worked. The incident rate was 5.83 in 2003 and 5.03 for the first quarter of this year. And that decrease happened as the industry hired on more workers nationwide and in the Pinedale Anticline.
"It's a real challenge to make this improvement when you're bringing a lot of new people in," said Joe Hurt, director of land operations for IADC.
Hurt said when the drilling industry reduces man hours, the incident rate drops because companies usually lay off their most inexperienced workers. Typically, the rate increases again as drilling activity booms and companies hire a lot of first-time rig hands.
A U.S. Bureau of Land Management Wyoming office spokesman said the agency does not believe natural gas companies are rushing in the Pinedale Anticline because of seasonal restrictions.
"The current accelerated pace of drilling is driven by industry and the nation's need for fossil-based fuels," said BLM spokesman Rey Adame. "The BLM will follow the procedures and processes as defined by regulation regardless of the pace of development. The operators and contractors are ultimately responsible for the safety and health of its employees."
Energy reporter Dustin Bleizeffer can be reached at (307) 682-3388 or email@example.com.