Excerpt: Crude, Slick and Deadly by Justin Williams

The Silent Killer

Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) is often found during oil and gas extraction. Colorless and flammable, H2S is highly toxic, and there are specific requirements for operations carried out in wells where the gas has been detected. According to Blackline Safety, a gas detection product supplier, “early detection of H2S could mean the difference between life and death.”

A well where the gas has been detected must be designated as an H2S well, where workers have to wear breathing apparatus. We have had numerous cases involving wells that were not appropriately designated, with tragic consequences. Calling H2S a silent killer is appropriate because most of the time, workers don't even know they are breathing the gas until they are dead. Basically, if you breathe a little bit of it, you may pass out, but you are dead if you breathe a little bit more. To prevent this, every worker must wear special equipment and undergo special training in H2S hazards. 

The problem with H2S wells is that the presence of the gas duplicates the cost of drilling. For this reason, nobody wants to designate their wells as H2S wells. But when the gas is present and they don't do it, operators are putting everybody at risk. 

Characteristics of H2S   

  • Rotten egg odor  
  • Colorless
  • Heavier than air  
  • Dissolves in water to form acid  
  • Very corrosive on certain metals, causes hydrogen sulfide stress cracking
  • Will kill sense of smell at high concentrations and at low concentrations over a period of time
  • Sweet tasting  
  • Very Deadly. At concentrations above 500 PPM, it can kill within minutes. It can also kill at a lower concentration if exposed long enough.
  • Kills by respiratory paralysis  
  • Converts to SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide) when burned

Many of these characteristics have an impact on drilling costs. For example, the fact that H2S is highly corrosive has resulted in a requirement that all parts used for the containment of pressure in the case of designated H2S wells be made of materials “not susceptible to H2S stress cracking under specified conditions.”

In Texas, Rule 36 establishes different compliance levels depending on the well’s distance from public areas, the concentration of H2S observed, and other factors. It is worth mentioning the Texas RRC’s training requirements for employees working in H2S wells.

Training Requirements for H2S Wells in Texas

  1. Operator shall train its employees working in H2S areas.
  2. Operator shall require service companies to utilize trained personnel actually working on an H2S system or well and where such work could allow the escape of H2S gas.
  3. Train all personnel in:
  4. Hazards and characteristics of H2S.
  5. Safety precautions
  6. Equipment - Safety and support
  7. Train on-site supervisory personnel in:
  8. Effects of H2S on metals
  9. Corrective actions and shutdown procedures.
  10. Well control - If a drilling operation
  11. Knowledge of contingency plan.

Some of the most important provisions of Rule 36 establish monitoring equipment requirements, mandatory PPE rules, and detailed notification requirements if there is “any accidental release of H2S of sufficient volume to present a hazard and of any H2S related accident.” 

Unfortunately, many operators systematically avoid complying with these very important rules, which are ultimately designed to prevent accidents and save lives. In 2019, we settled a case with a company that claimed their well was “not an H2S well.” A worker had been found dead at the bottom of a tank; the cause of death was H2S poisoning. 

During legal proceedings, the operator produced documents from another well that didn't have any H2S in it. When we finally found the documents from the actual well where the accident had occurred, it turned out it had enough of the hazardous gas in it to be designated as an H2S well. In fact, it was not present at a huge concentration, but that didn’t make the well much safer because when H2S gets to the surface, it expands, becoming much more volatile and much deadlier. 

The defendants didn't have the site designated as an H2S well. They didn't have any H2S monitoring equipment set up. They knew gas monitors could save lives; they just didn’t want to pay for them.

The Problem with H2S Monitoring Devices

Not long ago, George Claxton, a war veteran, was killed by an H2S leak in Montague County. I would love to tell you that what happened to Claxton is a rarity, but I would be lying. It is a fact that a simple, inexpensive fixed gas monitor would have saved Claxton’s life. It boggles the mind that the industry has not adopted this type of monitor. The current standard is the "four-gas monitor." This type of device typically monitors H2S, carbon monoxide, combustible gases, and oxygen. It is a wearable, personal protective device.

What is the problem with that? Well, by the time your four-gas monitor goes off, you may be dead because the gas has already got to you. The whole purpose of monitoring for oil and gas is to alert somebody that there is a danger. And if you are wearing a gas detection device, when it goes off, it means that the dangerous gas is within four feet of you. You are already breathing it in. 

Instead of wearable monitors, there should be fixed-in-place monitors. So, if there is a tank with an opening at the top, gas will emerge from there, and a cover will be coming on and off. This means that you need to have a monitor at that location so that when the gas comes out of the top of the tank, the monitor goes off. You don't have to climb up there, like George Claxton did, and breathe the gas, and have your monitor go off when it is already too late. 

You need to have a fixed-gas monitor at the well and at all of the tanks workers will be checking. If you have a pipeline, put a monitor at the entrance to the pipeline. Or, if you have a valve that will be used to discharge oil or gas into a truck, put it where the discharge valve is located.

Fixed-in-place monitors cost about a hundred dollars a month to rent. They are not expensive, so if you operate an extraction site, you could put four or five of them around your location for $400 or $500 a month. With such a negligible investment, you would be protecting the truck drivers that come to load or discharge fluids, the workers in charge of drilling operations, and everyone else involved.

Instead, operators insist on making workers wear four-gas monitors. And most of the time, in my experience, by the time these devices go off, people have already breathed in the H2S. I have worked on a number of cases where workers accidentally inhaled H2S while wearing this supposedly protective gear. The question is, how come I know this, but the industry doesn't? I once laid out this dilemma before one of my expert witnesses, and he said, “There is always discussion about having a requirement for fixed monitors at every well location, and cost is such a big bugaboo to the industry.” It is as simple as that. Anything they have got to do that is going to increase operational costs at an oil and gas well, the industry is just automatically against, even if it is not something that is incredibly expensive. It seems to be a matter of “principle,” though that is probably the wrong choice of word in this case; it is more a case of lack of principles unless you count profiteering as a positive value.

One of my West Texas cases may serve to illustrate this point more vividly. My client is a former employee of an operator with a history of deadly H2S leaks. The man I represent was fired for telling supervisors and management that they needed to install fixed monitors and bring the locations up to standard. But instead of making the location safer for everyone, his employer just told him to pack up his belongings and get out. They said they just had no budget to do the things he was asking them to do, and they did not appreciate him sounding the alarm. 

Over the years, I have learned that only lawsuits can make these companies change the way they do business. Regulators are always 10 years behind. Onshore Texas is one of the safest places to be for oil and gas workers. Conditions in our state´s oilfields are not ideal, but they do offer a safer environment than North Dakota, Oklahoma, and other U.S. states. This is the result of the lawsuits that have hit Texas operators over the last 40 years. 

These legal battles have taught the industry that if they fail to operate safely and people get injured, they will be held accountable. We need more successful lawsuits and settlements to force oil and gas companies to effectively protect workers from H2S poisoning, among many other hazards.

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