permian basin

The road to better safety

In one of the world’s most productive oil fields, shale operators have put competition aside to join in a common cause: making roads safer.

By Thomas Francis on Mar 4, 2019

Permian Basin narrow roads
The Permian Basin's narrow roads were built for use by ranchers who were moving cattle and crops

You can drive for hours through the Permian Basin region of West Texas, USA, without feeling you have travelled a single metre.

The region, which is around the size of Scotland, is table-flat and arid, looking much the same on one side as it does on the other.

Its narrow roads were built for a time when they were used chiefly by ranchers moving cattle and crops.

Today, the shale revolution has transformed the region, bringing thousands of oil and gas workers and causing a massive spike in traffic.

"There are people here working long hours, and they’re driving long distances just to get to work," says Juan Ramirez, who has worked for Shell in the Permian since the company started operations in 2012.

"The truth is, it's getting more dangerous because of the volume of traffic and time on the road."

In 2017, the Permian Basin – named after the prehistoric period when the rocks formed beneath its surface – witnessed more than double the number of traffic fatalities as New York City, which has a population 16 times the size. 

And, as global energy demand rises, that traffic looks set to increase. Over the coming five years, some 60% of the world's growth in oil production is expected to come from this region.

Teamwork

With that in mind, Shell, other multinationals and the smaller global companies that make up the majority of operators in the area are working hard together to improve road safety.

For more than 35 years, retired Chevron employee Dolores Vick has seen operators competing for land and workers and battling to produce the most oil.

But as road accidents increased she saw operators look beyond business rivalries to confront a challenge facing the whole industry.

"We’ve come to see that safety is not an issue that needs to have a competitive edge," says Vick, who frequently met local community leaders concerned about safety on the road.

In 2015, Vick attended a road safety forum headed by Shell, which was then expanding operations in the region and concerned about the dangers and delays that come from traffic.

Soon the attendees of these meetings would organise as the Permian Road Safety Coalition, with Vick as its first chair.

The coalition, now a full-time effort, includes Shell, Chevron and other operators, plus transportation companies and contractors, along with government and NGO members.

Together, the coalition has supported an effort to convince authorities to lower the 75 mph (120 km/h) speed limit and has secured over $1.6 billion for improvements, including widened roads and additional signage, as well as passing lanes and turning lanes on stretches of road where crashes have occurred.

For Shell, the coalition is similar to community road safety programmes in Canada, South Africa, Iraq, China and Malaysia, where driving risks are also hard to manage.

Shell has been able to draw upon practices that have improved road safety in those countries and apply them in the Permian.

Permian Basin broken roads
The Permian Road Safety Coalition is working to improve the quality of the roads including widening them, adding better signage and building more lanes

Growing awareness

Scott Scheffler, Executive Director of the Permian Road Safety Coalition and a Shell employee, says that the coalition is helping companies reinforce the need for vigilance among their contractors and sub-contractors.

"The coalition is extremely important because they give us feedback that guides our transportation policies and helps us determine where the unsafe spots are and how to best target our resources," says John Love, a city councilman who also attends coalition meetings.

Love says that in the last year alone, 13,000 potholes, most due to the heavy industrial traffic, were filled in the Western Texas city of Midland.

Through the coalition, companies like Shell are sharing technology and expertise, such as the use of in-vehicle systems to track, monitor and coach drivers on their behaviours behind the wheel.

Shell itself has taken further safety measures. For example, the company invested in building pipes to carry water to its operations, thus reducing the need for thousands of water hauler trucks per day. A fleet of drones perform inspections on equipment, sparing workers from having to drive between sites.

Shell has also built temporary living camps so that workers can rest overnight and avoid long-distance, round-trip travel. And the company puts its workers in "anti-crash vehicles" so that if an accident does occur, injuries are less likely.

A shift is beginning to occur. People across businesses are engaging, getting on board together and saying 'enough is enough'

Randy Tomlinson, member of the Permian Road Safety Coalition

The hope is that more companies across the Permian will follow, and that workers who unfailingly practise rigorous safety on the job will also practise it on the road.

"We’re growing awareness among executives, where we can really make a difference," says Randy Tomlinson, a trucking contractor who was among the first to join the coalition.

"The next step is to change the mindset of workers: if they wouldn't take these risks on the job, why would they take them on the way home to their families?"

The shift is beginning to occur, he says. "People are engaging across businesses, getting on board together and saying, enough is enough."

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