Oilfield Group Warns of Uptick in Deadly Crashes, Even as Industry Slows

Fatal crashes on highways in the West Texas oil patch have ticked up even as oil production has slowed down, raising concerns about anxiety-fueled distracted drivers.

Oil storage tanks in Monahans, Texas, in 2018. (CNS Photo/Travis Bubenik)

(CN) – Even before the hellish mix of a global pandemic and collapsing oil prices swept into the West Texas oil towns of Midland and Odessa, the boom times here had started to fade.

In December, the number of drilling rigs out searching for oil and gas in the region had dropped by more than 80 since the start of last year. Executives reported cuts to jobs and work hours even as oil prices held steady at levels where companies could at least still turn a profit.

That was before the real hurt started.

In March, oil prices plummeted to lows not seen since the early 2000s, prompting energy companies to slash budgets and lay off thousands of workers.

In a region that’s infamous for a correlation between increases in oil production and deadly crashes on highways, it would be reasonable to expect those crash numbers to fall when the economy sputters during times like these.

But here in the nation’s largest oilfield, one industry-backed group has instead noticed a strange and concerning trend: deadly crash numbers have ticked up this year compared to the same time last year, when the oil patch was much more bustling.

Now, there’s a growing concern that the combined anxieties of a depressed local economy and the arrival of coronavirus cases in the region could lead to “mentally distracted” drivers making the highways even more dangerous.

“I really think it’s this concern about your job, concern about the health of your family, there’s just a lot of external factors I think that play into individual psyche,” Scott Scheffler, head of the Permian Road Safety Coalition, said in an interview.

The coalition, a nonprofit sponsored by oil companies like Shell, Chevron and other major players, has for years brought together industry stakeholders to try and reduce the region’s rate of fatal crashes. Scheffler, in his role as the group’s executive director, is also a Shell employee.

According to numbers the group obtained from the transportation departments in Texas and New Mexico, 59 people died in crashes across the Permian Basin between the start of this year and the end of March. That’s up from 49 deaths over the same period the year before, the group said.

“We’re starting to see more of these kind of mentally distracted incidents, literally where someone runs into the back of another vehicle and can’t explain why they did that,” Scheffler said.

While shelter-in-place orders have cleared traffic off roads in big cities across Texas and the rest of the U.S., the same can’t be said for parts of West Texas, where energy workers lucky enough to still have a job are considered essential and are allowed to carry on.

“There are still rigs in production that still need services,” said Gene Powell, a spokesperson for the Odessa district of the Texas Department of Transportation. “Obviously it’s not what it was, but there’s still some activity out there.”

Powell called the prospect of an increase in mentally distracted drivers a “valid concern.” He said there’s a risk that oilfield workers could be feeling heightened pressure to prove their worth to their employers.

A pump jack is pictured near Imperial, Texas in 2017. (CNS Photo/Travis Bubenik)

“If I still got a job, I’ve got to do everything I can to not lose my job,” Powell said. “So I’ve got to do more work because there’s fewer people out here, and I’ve got to hustle more than I’ve ever hustled before.”

This region has been through busts before, of course. But not like this one.

The Midland-Odessa region has seen at least four residents die from Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, while confirmed cases of the virus in the broader Permian Basin have reached about 100 as of Wednesday afternoon.

It’s hard to quantify which kind of distractions cause which wrecks, Powell said, but it’s reasonable to assume anxieties about the virus are playing into driving behaviors.

“Nothing is in a vacuum,” he said.

Despite the concerns, there is the real possibility that fatal crash numbers could still fall in the weeks and months ahead.

Declines in oilfield activity can lag behind rapid drops in the price of a barrel as companies wrap up projects they were working on before the crash. While the Permian Basin lost 36 drilling rigs in March after oil prices tanked, it’s since lost another 66 rigs, according to weekly data from oilfield services giant Baker Hughes.

The local safety group has not yet reviewed fatal crash numbers for the month of April.

Odessa native Juan Rodriguez is a dispatcher at a local trucking facility where “hot shot” drivers load up with sand and other drilling materials and rush them out to rig sites.

In an interview, Rodriguez said the company’s work has definitely slowed down. There’s a shortage of customers and cash flow is tough as some customers try to stall on paying. The economic anxieties are real.

“The people that are out there definitely are feeling the stress, looking over their shoulder,” he said. “I speak to different friends all of the time, they’re wondering if they’re going to get laid off. It’s kind of a, man, during this time, how am I going to provide for my family?”

Still, Rodriguez has seen some of the region’s worst traffic hot spots improve recently, and he doesn’t buy the idea that “mental distractions” significantly affect drivers’ behavior.

“I believe that anytime we get behind the wheel, we know what’s at stake,” he said. “We know that we need to do the right job.”

The Permian Road Safety Coalition is nonetheless urging companies in the region to make sure their employees stay focused on the road and “just drive.” The group is hosting a virtual seminar next week that will feature safety wisdom from Brian Fielkow, CEO of Houston-based trucking company Jetco Delivery.

“You’ve got to anticipate the concerns and create an environment where you’re making it psychologically safe for a driver to do his or her work.” Fielkow said in an interview. “Examples might be more frequent time outs, more frequent breaks, so they can check in at home, just sort of ramping down some of the production pressure.”

A natural gas flare is pictured near Orla, Texas, in 2018. (CNS Photo/Travis Bubenik)

Even if oilfield highways become less crowded as companies continue to cut jobs and scale back drilling, there’s a looming, longer-term concern that much-needed upgrades to the roads themselves could be delayed as the state’s tax revenue evaporates from the oil crash and the pandemic.

The Texas Department of Transportation is already working on more than $800 million worth of improvements to oilfield highways battered by heavy truck traffic, with almost $3 billion more worth of projects in the works.

Local officials have argued for years that the upgrades are crucial to keeping the roads safe. Some of the projects are aimed at widening one heavily trafficked oilfield route that’s come to be known as “Death Highway.”

“I have a concern on the timeliness of delivering these road projects,” Scheffler said. “That also goes for the county roads that are hugely impacted by this industry.”

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