Journalists are supposed to investigate and expose public servants, we’re supposed to remind them that they’re being watched. But the atmosphere in Wyoming’s state capitol so heavily favors the powerful oil and gas industry that it can be daunting for a writer to uncover where the industry has an unseemly reach into the decisions and actions of our elected officials. Those of us who attempt this foolhardy trick can end up a little jittery and battle-weary. For one thing, it’s hardly a level playing field. The oil and gas industry reported gross income of $34 billion in Wyoming last year — they can afford to exert non-stop pressure on the legislature. Compare and contrast that to the crippled state of our newspapers’ finances and the dried-up state of book advances.
This week, I went to Cheyenne to testify on behalf of roughnecks for the passage of HB 273 . What I was expecting when I got to the capitol was an atmosphere weighed heavily in favor of Big Oil and I was not disappointed. The lobbies of Cheyenne are lousy with representatives of the oil and gas industry — one can hardly squeeze to the water fountain past all their belt buckles. As a result, a fairly negative ambience enveloped our little party of roughnecks and advocates. The powerful oil and gas lobby had been working tirelessly to prejudice the House Judiciary Committee against our bill, and the buzz in the halls was that we were fighting an uphill battle before we even filed into room 302 on Wednesday morning to testify.
What a pleasant surprise, then, to be greeted by a panel of mostly respectful legislators of House Judiciary Committee members. They listened carefully to both the roughnecks and industry (only one legislator, Rep Erin Mercer (R-Cambell) played her hand blatantly, actively distracted when the roughnecks’ advocate spoke and abruptly, raptly attentive when the spokesman for EnCana testified). It was a powerful event to witness. Here, for the first and likely the only time in their lives roughnecks, and family members of roughnecks who had been killed or maimed on the rigs, were able to stand before their elected officials and remind everyone that there are real people and genuinely dreadful sacrifices at the business end of that $34 billion industry.
Ultimately the bill was defeated 5-4 with support for the measure from Rep Gingery (R-Teton); Rep. Richard Cannady (R-Converse); Rep. George Bagby (D-Carbon); Rep. Joseph Barbuto (D-Sweetwater) and “no” votes from Rep. Mary Throne (D-Laramie); Rep. Frank Peasley (R-Converse); Rep. John Patton (R-Sheridan); Rep. Lorraine Quarberg (R-Washakie) and Rep. Mercer (R-Campbell). However, what was exposed during the hours of testimony, and what can never be ignored again, is that Wyoming has a massive problem with worker safety in the oil patch. The three deaths that have occurred since the New Year are a fairly typical mix of the kinds of accidents that occur on our oil fields: one man crushed under the trailer portion of a truck-and-trailer unit hauling sand to a rig site; one man dead in a single-car roll-over after leaving the rig; one man injured on the rig and dying later in a Salt Lake City hospital.
What are just as typical — but hauntingly difficult to pin down — are the deaths that occur months after accidents on the rigs, that are therefore not reported as an oil-field fatalities. On November 4, 2006, for example, Owen Friswold was loading pipe at night on a poorly-lit rig on an Ultra site near Pinedale. His foot was badly crushed in the process. The Ultra company man on location reportedly told him, “I can take you to a clinic, but if I do, everyone’s getting a drug test and some of your friends won’t have jobs [because of failing the drug test] and you’ll all lose your safety pay.”
Friswold agreed to stay on the rig that night, rather than jeopardize his fellow rig hands’ pay or their jobs. By the time he got to the doctor in Jackson the next day, his injuries were obviously serious. Within months, his leg had to be amputated below the knee. In 2008, unable to overcome the debilitating depression that followed the amputation, Friswold killed himself.
“Owen didn’t die physically on the rig that night,” Shondel, Owen Fiswold’s widow, told me, “but for all intents and purposes, his life ended there and then.”
Oil and gas revenues fill our state coffers, the oil and gas industry is the dominant culture in our state and a dominant presence on our land — between a fifth and a quarter of all of Wyoming’s land surface has been leased to oil and gas. To stand up to such power leaves a person feeling like a mouse roaring at a volcano, but on Wednesday in Cheyenne, a few brave souls did just that. It remains to be seen if their courageous testimony will translate into meaningful change. I have no doubt that there is an unhealthy connection between the unseemly whiff of oil and gas in the lobbies of Wyoming’s capitol and the death of Owen Friswold. The question is, do our elected officials have the will and the stomach to recognize, name and remedy that connection? If their concerned and respectful audience is anything to go by, I feel very hopeful that some of them do. All God’s speed and courage to them, and may they remember that they are law makers for the people of Wyoming, not the instruments of a powerful oil and gas lobby.
Like this article? Get on our E-Newsletter list for the latest WyoFile articles and special reports.
Other WyoFile Articles On This Topic:
“Death In The Wyoming Oilfields”, May 5, 2008
“A Whiff Of Wyoming Injustice: Fairness For Our Fallen Workers”, February 5, 2008
More On Alexandra Fuller:
New York Times Profile, May 1, 2008
New York Times Essay, April 20, 2008
Casper Star Tribune, letter from a Bryant family member, February 1, 2009.
Alexandra, I was so touched, and grateful that you were able to write with such eloquence about HB 273. To know that you were there, testifying shows such grace and grit! Your pen might be the only sword to try and stop industry’s horrendous acts of greed and indifference. Nothing else seems to be working. I was so discouraged to see that the fraccing fluid bill passed. I sent the WyoFile web site to all the people I know.
What many do not realize is how fortunate we here in Wyoming are to have folks like Alexandra Fuller to speak out and bring this issue to the public. She does not have to do it however she does because she is a compasonate person. Thank you so much Alexandra for speaking out and helping to keep ’em honest as they say.
Working on these rigs is dangerous no one is denying that. However with the billions in profits that are being made by the industry there is no reason these types of injuries/deaths are occuring.
After 8 years of having this all shoved down our throats it is time Wyoming lawmakers step up to the plate and work for the people who they are suppose to be working for. Worker safety, citizen safety ( air, water pollution), socio impacts,and the same drum beat goes on. Will they ever listen?
Thanks for sending me your WyoFile Special Reports newsletter(s). I always enjoy the pieces and the deep thinking they provoke. In Alexandra’s piece, however, I see more holes than potential solutions. She said, “Frankly, I don’t blame the oil and gas companies for this startling gap in justice.” And without saying it, Alexandra also levied no responsibility for their own safety on the roughnecks. Employers carry a moral, if not a legal, responsibility for the safety of their workers. And the workers certainly do have a personal responsibility for their own safety. Alexandra’s death rate stats, too, leave out more than they reveal. I’m a Wyoming native; I’ve lived in New Mexico, and I’ve spent time in Louisiana. Our weather, as a stand-alone factor, could account for the numerical differences, and that’s a thing legislators can’t solve. What about substance abuse? Alexandra doesn’t address it. Drug and alcohol abuse are huge players that work against safety on the rigs in Wyoming. I commend Alexandra for taking on the plight of the roughnecks. They do a tough job, and they do it for long hours and too many days in a row in often deplorable conditions. But I would rather read a fully developed piece in your newsletter than an emotionally biased article that charges government with more responsibility for workplace safety than the primary participants.
Bob Townsend, Atlantic City, Wyo.
It is nice to see someone else finally concerned about Wyoming worker safety, but where have you been for the last 50 years. This is not just a problem in the oil patch it is a problem in any Wyoming industry, because the Worker’s Comp system has been repeatedly amended to protect irresponsible employers. The Wyoming AFL-CIO, the Wyoming Trial Lawyers Association and the handful of unions in Wyoming have been fighting to correct this for decades with little or no help from anyone. Every time a worker fights a Worker’s Comp decision all the way to the Wyoming Supreme Court and wins the Legislature, comes back in the next session and changes the law so no other worker can sue successfully. Who sponsors these bills, the Legislators who are repeatedly re-elected by the oil and gas workers who are being killed. This can all be verified by looking at three sources. Review the decisions of the Wyoming Supreme Court, the Legislative Journals and election returns available on the Wyoming Secretary of State’s website. The first step in correcting a problem is recognizing what the problem is. If the Legislator from your district is not supporting your safety and justice for injured workers, why do re-elect them year after year? After years (back to the early 1980’s) of fighting for improvements in the Worker’s Compensation Act (more like the Employer Protection Act) I am not convinced that another band-aid on that system is worth the effort. I think the best use of our time and effort would be a constitutional amendment to abolish the whole system and let workers go to court without hobbles. Some workers would not fair as well but many would finally receive the justice the current system denies them.