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Greenland, the land of ice and snow, is burning

This is going to sound weird, but there’s a wildfire right now in west Greenland. You know, that huge island of mostly ice? Part of it is on fire.

There’s been nothing even close to this since reliable satellite-based fire detection records began in Greenland in 2000. Very small wildfires can evade satellite detection, and old-timer scientists who have worked in Greenland for decades say that micro-fires there aren’t necessarily uncommon.

This week’s fire, however, is on another level.

“This is the largest wildfire we know of,” says Stef Lhermitte, a satellite expert at Technische Universiteit in Delft, Netherlands, who did some of the initial mapping of the fire. “For a lot of people, it’s been a bit of discovery on the go.” The fire was first spotted by a local aircraft on July 31.

What’s striking about the Greenland fire is that it fits a larger trend of rapid change across the northern reaches of the planet. A 2013 study found that across the entire Arctic, forests are burning at a rate unseen in at least 10,000 years.

By American standards, the Greenland fire is small, covering around 1,200 acres (about two square miles) — about the size of midtown Manhattan. The massive Lodgepole Complex wildfire that scorched eastern Montana in July — the largest fire in the country this year — was more than 200 times bigger. But for Greenland, a fire of this size is so unusual that even scientists who study the huge island don’t really know what to make of it.

The Danish meteorological service (Greenland is technically an autonomously governing part of Denmark) said it has no experts who specialize in Greenland fire. The European Commission has tasked its Emergency Management Service with a rapid mapping of the region of the fire, in part to help local officials assess the risks to public health. Mark Parrington, a meteorologist with the European government, said on Twitter that he “didn’t expect to be adding Greenland into my fire monitoring,” adding that he may need to recalibrate his air pollution models to account for the smoldering way that fire tends to burn in permafrost soil.

Riikka Rinnan, an ecologist at the University of Copenhagen, said her research team had started work earlier this summer on how potential fires could impact Greenland’s tundra, but didn’t expect one so soon. Jessica McCarty, a satellite data expert at Miami University in Ohio, said she’s planning to have one of her students construct what might be the first-ever comprehensive history of fires in Greenland.

And yes, as you might expect, climate change probably made this whole thing more likely.

“Everything we know suggests that fire will increase in the Arctic,” climate scientist Jason Box, whose work focuses on Greenland, told me. “It’s fair to say that it’s part of the pattern of warming. We should see more such fires in Greenland.”

Though west Greenland, where the fire is burning, is a semi-arid region, rainfall and temperatures there have been increasing, helping to foster more dense vegetation. Box says this is part of the “shrubification” of the entire Arctic as temperatures warm and the growing season lengthens. Denser vegetation is making large fires more likely, in combination with the simultaneous tendency for longer and more intense droughts and the rise in thunderstorm likelihood due to erratic weather patterns.

Box says he saw a fire in west Greenland back in 1999. “It’s pretty interesting for Greenland, people don’t think about it as a place where that’s possible — nor did I until I saw it with my own eyes.” Once he realized he was watching a wildfire, he said, “It was like, what the heck? What is going on?”

What set off this blaze? The scientists I spoke with aren’t sure. The primary cause of Arctic wildfires is lightning, but a lightning storm in Greenland would have been news. Thunderstorms typically need warm, humid air for fuel, and both are in short supply so close to the world’s second largest ice sheet.

According to John Kappelen, a Danish meteorologist, the region surrounding the fire has had well below average rainfall since June, making wildfire more likely.

“This time of year, everybody’s going out and picking berries and fishing and hunting,” says Ruth Mottram, a climate scientist at the Danish meteorological service who conducts frequent fieldwork in Greenland. Maybe someone in the area set a fire that grew into the big blaze. Greenland’s second largest town, Sisimiut, with a population of 5,500, is about 90 miles away.

Mottram says that if the fire is burning in peatland, it could rage for weeks. If the winds shift, soot from the fire could be transported up to the ice sheet, where it might speed local melting in the coming years by darkening the surface of the ice, helping it to absorb more energy from the sun. This is something that scientists like Box and Mottram are spending their careers studying, but up to now, they thought that virtually all the soot that’s making the bright white ice darker was transported there from Canada or Russia. Now, a new source may be emerging.

Should wildfires like this one increase in frequency, we may have just witnessed the start of a new, scary feedback loop.

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Greenland, the land of ice and snow, is burning

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‘Flash drought’ could devastate half the High Plains wheat harvest

It’s peak hurricane season, but the nation’s worst weather disaster right now is raging on the High Plains.

An intense drought has quickly gripped much of the Dakotas and parts of Montana this summer, catching farmers and ranchers off-guard. The multi-agency U.S. Drought Monitor recently upgraded the drought to “exceptional,” its highest severity level, matching the intensity of the California drought at its peak.

The Associated Press says the dry conditions are “laying waste to crops and searing pasture and hay land” in America’s new wheat belt, with some longtime farmers and ranchers calling it the worst of their lifetimes. Unfortunately, this kind of came-out-of-nowhere drought could become a lot less rare in the future.

“The damage and the destruction is just unimaginable,” Montana resident Sarah Swanson told Grist. “It’s unlike anything we’ve seen in decades.”

Rainfall across the affected region has been less than half of normal since late April, when this year’s growing season began. In parts of Montana’s Missouri River basin, which is the drought’s epicenter, rainfall has been less than a quarter of normal — which equals the driest growing season in recorded history for some communities.

“It’s devastating,” says Tanja Fransen, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s office in Glasgow, Montana. Just six years removed from 2011, one of the region’s wettest years on record, eastern Montana is now enduring one of its driest.

“We’re at the bottom of the barrel,” Fransen says. “For many areas, it’s the worst we’ve seen in 100 years.”

In a matter of weeks, the area of Montana in drought conditions has expanded eightfold.U.S. Drought Monitor

Wheat production worries

The drought already has far-reaching effects. In eastern Montana, America’s current-largest wildfire continues to smolder; the 422-square-mile Lodgepole complex fire is one-third the size of Rhode Island. It’s Montana’s largest fire since 1910.

Across the state, 17 other large fires are also spreading. “We haven’t even hit our normal peak fire season yet,” Fransen says.

Recently, as the climate has warmed and crop suitability has shifted, the Dakotas and Montana have surpassed Kansas as the most important wheat-growing region in the country. The High Plains is now a supplier of staple grain for the entire world. According to recent field surveys, more than half of this year’s harvest may already be lost.

The economic impact of the drought and related fires may exceed $1 billion across the multi-state region by the time the rains return. Donations of hay for beleaguered farmers and ranchers have come in from as far away as West Virginia.

Farmers in the region are also worried because the Trump administration has targeted a key federal crop insurance program for hefty cuts. The governors of North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana have all declared states of emergency to speed aid and open some normally protected areas for livestock grazing.

Abnormally dry conditions now cover 100 percent of South Dakota.U.S. Drought Monitor

It came out of nowhere

Droughts are often thought of as creeping, slow-motion disasters. They usually don’t grab headlines like hurricane landfalls, even though they represent the costliest weather-related catastrophe worldwide.

But this drought is an anomaly, a “flash drought.” It essentially came from nowhere. It didn’t exist just three months ago.

The frequency of these rapid-onset droughts is expected to increase as the planet warms. A recent study focusing on China found that flash droughts more than doubled in frequency there between 1979 and 2010.

Droughts like these are closely linked to climate change. As temperatures rise, abnormally dry conditions across the western United States are already becoming more common and more intense. And as evaporation rates speed up, rainfall becomes more erratic, and spring snowmelt dries up earlier each year.

Future summers in North Dakota are expected to be even hotter and drier, on par with the present-day weather of south Texas.

Taking heavy losses

On Whitney Klasna’s ranch in Lambert, Montana, the spring rains “just didn’t come this year.” Klasna has already seen 60 to 80 percent crop losses in her fields, and now she’s making calculations about which of her cattle she can afford to save. She and her crew are working to drill an additional water well and install a pipeline to keep as many alive as possible.

Now they’re worried that, if the rains do come, they’ll lead to flash flooding; the ground has essentially been transformed into concrete.

Klasna calls the drought a “perfect storm of bad luck” and expects its impacts to last for years.

The drought in western North Dakota is now just as severe as California’s was at its peak.U.S. Drought Monitor

Further west, near where the Lodgepole complex is burning, Sarah Swanson runs a John Deere dealership, one of the biggest businesses in her community. She hears heartbreaking stories from across the region, with many farmers and ranchers working together to fight the fire with their own equipment.

“Right now, I don’t think anybody has time to feel scared,” Swanson says. “I think the emotions will probably start once they have time to get the fire out in a week or two.”

Last week, Swanson wrote a personal letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Montana native, asking him to ease grazing restrictions on a nearby wildlife refuge. Two days later, he did so.

“We’ll be able to continue on,” Swanson says. “I wish I could say that for all the Main Street businesses in eastern Montana, but I don’t think I can. The effects are already being felt by restaurants and retail shops and gas stations, and there will be some that can’t sustain this.”

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‘Flash drought’ could devastate half the High Plains wheat harvest

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Here Are the Results for Montana’s Body-Slamming-Marred Special Election

Mother Jones

Update 12:50am ET Friday, May 26, 2016: The race has been called for Republican Greg Gianforte.

On Thursday voters in Montana went to the polls in a special election to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who left Congress in March. (See below for the results, beginning at 7 p.m. PT.) The race was marred by a fishing-hole dispute, a concert at a nudist resort, and, in the waning hours of the campaign, a misdemeanor assault by the Republican front-runner, Greg Gianforte, who “body slammed” a reporter. No one ever called Montana politics boring.

The race has major national implications: Although Republicans consistently carry the state at the presidential level, Democrats have won statewide races for senator and governor in Montana in recent years—and this contest offers the party’s most serious opportunity yet to chip away at the Republican majority in Congress and show that with the right candidate and message, it can compete and win in Trump Country. Gianforte, a businessman, has consistently led in the polls against Democrat Rob Quist, a country music singer.

After Gianforte narrowly lost his bid for governor last fall (largely on the basis of a decade-old lawsuit over fishing access), he kept a low profile during his comeback bid and sought to win election by avoiding taking a position on the most contentious issue in Washington: the Republican health care bill, which would leave an additional 23 million Americans without health insurance by 2026. Quist, an unabashed economic populist, campaigned aggressively on a single-payer platform and ran ads about his own preexisting condition (a botched gallbladder operation). Gianforte stalled for the final 21 days of the race, insisting first that he would wait to pass judgment until after a new Congressional Budget Office score had been released, and then after the CBO report was released, body-slamming the first reporter who asked his position. Win or lose, he’s due back in Bozeman in June for a court date.

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Here Are the Results for Montana’s Body-Slamming-Marred Special Election

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Here’s What Montana Voters Are Waking Up to After Greg Gianforte’s Assault Charge

Mother Jones

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In the wake of Montana Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte’s alleged assault of a reporter Wednesday, all three of the state’s largest newspapers have withdrawn their endorsements of him. The papers, which include the Billings Gazette, Missoulian, and Independent Record, pulled their support within hours of the shocking incident, which came on the eve of Montana’s special election to fill the seat of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“If what was heard on tape and described by eye-witnesses is accurate, the incident in Bozeman is nothing short of assault,” an editorial from the Billings Gazette read. “We wouldn’t condone it if it happened on the street. We wouldn’t condone it if it happened in a home or even a late-night bar fight. And we couldn’t accept it from a man who is running to become Montana’s lone Congressional representative.”

Gianforte had touted the newspapers’ endorsements in a campaign video as recently as Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday evening, Guardian news reporter Ben Jacobs approached the GOP candidate with a question regarding the American Health Care Act. According to audio of their exchange, Gianforte quickly grew irritated by the question. Loud thuds can also be heard in the recording. Jacobs contacted the police and Gianforte was charged with assault for allegedly “body-slamming” him.

Shane Scanlon, a spokesman for the Republican candidate, released a statement calling Jacobs a “liberal reporter” and accused him of exhibiting “aggressive behavior.” However, three Fox reporters who witnessed the alleged attack confirmed Jacobs’ account and said they saw Gianforte grab Jacobs by the neck before pummeling him on the ground.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Gianforte’s alleged actions will have an effect on today’s race. Because of Montana’s absentee voter laws, most expected voters have already cast their ballots.

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Here’s What Montana Voters Are Waking Up to After Greg Gianforte’s Assault Charge

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What Trump’s Interior pick means for federal lands and national parks

President-elect Trump tapped Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke to head the Department of the Interior, the cabinet position tasked with management of 500 million acres of federal lands — about one-fifth of the entire United States. As Secretary of the Interior, Zinke’s decisions will impact conservation, recreation, wildlife refuges, endangered species, tribal lands, clean air and water, energy development, and the economy, as well as the beloved National Parks.

So who is this guy anyway? Watch our video above.

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What Trump’s Interior pick means for federal lands and national parks

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Here’s Where Your State Stands on LGBT Rights

Mother Jones

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In a time of uncertainty and anxiety for LGBT rights advocates, and with plenty of battles left to fight, 2016 showed some encouraging signs for broader protections at the state level, according to a new analysis by the country’s biggest LGBT advocacy group.

Over the past year, state legislatures saw an uptick in bills affecting the LGBT community—with a whopping 753 such bills introduced. Some of the most famous, like North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” sought to restrict their rights. But many more bills—two-thirds of them, in fact—pushed to improve protections for the LGBT community, the Human Rights Campaign found in a report published Wednesday. “There has definitely been some good to come out of the last 12 months,” says Lynne Bowman, a field director for the advocacy group, which put out the report in collaboration with Equality Federation Institute.

Sixteen nondiscrimination laws passed this year, including in Massachusetts, which enhanced its law in July to give trans people the right to use public bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity. Governors in Montana, Louisiana, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania signed executive orders expanding protections for gay and trans state employees (though a Louisiana judge struck down the governor’s protection this week.)

Courtesy of the Human Rights Campaign

Hate crime laws were also expanded in a dozen states to include crimes targeting people for their sexual orientation or gender identity. (Check out how your state stacks up, in the map above.) The number of hate crime laws proposed more than doubled from 2015, with attacks on the LGBT community gaining national attention in the wake of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Florida that left 50 people dead this summer.

In five states—Hawaii, Delaware, Maryland, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—lawmakers pushed through legislation to stop health care insurers from excluding trans patients. Meanwhile, half a dozen states passed bills relating to youth suicide prevention and anti-bullying in schools, and Vermont and New York joined the list of states banning conversion therapy.

But it wasn’t all good news for LGBT rights. State legislators proposed more than 250 anti-LGBT bills this year, more than in any other year since 2009. The most high-profile setback was North Carolina’s House Bill 2, which removed anti-discrimination protections for LGBT workers and required trans people to use the bathroom corresponding to their biological sex, not their gender identity. Gov. Pat McCrory and North Carolina’s legislators met immediate pushback, losing an estimated $395 million in business in the state and sparking a Justice Department lawsuit. Even so, 14 other states proposed their own bathroom bills this year—though none of them passed. Of the 252 total bills seeking to restrict LGBT rights, only 8 passed. It “took a lot of collective work” to make sure this restrictive legislation didn’t go through, HRC’s Bowman said.

Courtesy of the Human Rights Campaign

And there’s still a lot of work to do. Eight states don’t allow teachers to discuss LGBT topics in schools, while 19 states exclude transgender people from state Medicaid. More than half of all states still don’t have nondiscrimination laws protecting gay or gender-nonconforming people in employment, housing, public accommodation, or education. (See more in the map below.)

Courtesy of the Human Rights Campaign

Even with so many anti-LGBT bills shot down this year, Bowman said we should expect more to crop up in 2017, particularly “religious freedom” bills and additional laws that discriminate against transgender people. Of course, this is all just at the state level. Donald Trump’s administration, along with a prospective Cabinet of LGBT rights opponents, could pose a whole new set of hurdles in the years to come.

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Here’s Where Your State Stands on LGBT Rights

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The “largest, dirtiest coal plant west of the Mississippi” announces major closures

Steam from the cooling towers of a coal power plant. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

The “largest, dirtiest coal plant west of the Mississippi” announces major closures

By on Jul 13, 2016Share

Two coal-burning units that the Sierra Club calls “the largest, dirtiest coal plant west of the Mississippi” will close by 2022, according to a settlement reached between the coal plant’s operators and environmental groups. These closures, reports the Sierra Club, will reduce carbon emissions to the tune of 5 million tons per year, the equivalent of taking 1 million cars off the road.

The plant in Colstrip, Mont., has supplied energy across the state and the Pacific Northwest since the 1970s. While the soon-to-be-shuttered units were only intended to be used for 30 years, they’ve been in operation for closer to 40, even though older coal plants tend to lack modern air-pollution controls. In 2013, the Sierra Club and the Montana Environmental Information Center sued the plant’s owners, Talen Energy and Puget Sound Energy, for violating the Clean Air Act.

The Colstrip unit closures are the most recent in a rapid spate of coal plant closures fueled by environmental lawsuits against major polluters to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Green groups are finding creative ways to speed up the U.S.’s transition away from coal even before the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan kicks into gear.

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Keystone pipeline still a pain in nation’s butt

Keystone pipeline still a pain in nation’s butt

By on May 11, 2016Share

Will it ever end?

Six months after President Obama nixed the Keystone XL pipeline — a decision it took him seven years to reach — Keystone is back in the news.

The Hill reports that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — along with Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas — filed briefs this week in support of a lawsuit against the Obama administration. Pipeline company TransCanada filed the suit in federal court in January, arguing that Obama exceeded his constitutional authority when he denied a permit for Keystone. (Also in January, TransCanada filed a separate claim under NAFTA arguing that the U.S. should pay the company more than $15 billion to compensate it for “costs and damages that it has suffered” because of Obama’s decision. Boo hoo.)

In the newly filed briefs, the states argue that by rejecting the pipeline, the president dampened employment opportunities. These so-called “employment opportunities” were an oft-cited argument in favor of building the pipeline, but the State Department estimated that Keystone would have created as few as 20 permanent jobs.

Maybe the states could just open one Arby’s and call it even.

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Keystone pipeline still a pain in nation’s butt

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This Law Just Took Abortion Pseudoscience to a New Low

Mother Jones

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Utah Gov. Gary Herbert on Monday signed a bill that makes the state the first in the nation to require doctors to anesthetize fetuses before performing abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. Previously, fetal anesthesia for abortion after 20 weeks was optional in Utah.

Supporters of the new law, called the Protecting Unborn Children Amendments, say fetuses can feel pain starting at about 20 weeks, so anesthesia or analgesic should be administered to “eliminate or alleviate organic pain to the unborn child.” But scientists have rejected the fetal pain claim, saying there is no conclusive evidence to back up such legislation.

Still, 12 states ban abortion after 20 weeks post-fertilization on the grounds that the fetus can feel pain. The 20-week mark is several weeks before the point at which the fetus is considered viable and abortion is no longer legally protected by Roe v. Wade. Utah already bans abortion after viability.

Republican State Sen. Curt Bramble initially planned to introduce a 20-week ban, but attorneys in the state advised him the law would not pass constitutional muster, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

“The process of a child being born is a natural process. There’s nothing natural about abortion. In fact, it’s barbaric,” Bramble said, adding, “In this quote ‘medical procedure,’ let’s call it what it is: It’s killing babies. And if we’re going to kill that baby, we ought to protect it from pain.”

Dr. Sean Esplin, a Utah-based physician, told the Associated Press that in order to comply with the law, the anesthesia will have to go through the woman to reach the fetus. Doctors can give the woman general anesthesia, which would make her unconscious, or a heavy dose of narcotics, neither of which were previously necessary for the procedure.

According to the American Society of Anesthesiologists, side effects of anesthesia include nausea, confusion, chills, and rarely more serious symptoms like delirium or long-term memory loss. “You never give those medicines if you don’t have to,” David Turok of the University of Utah’s obstetrics and gynecology department told NBC.

Utah is the only state in the country with an anesthesia requirement during abortion. The Montana Legislature passed a similar law in 2015, but it was vetoed by the governor.

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This Law Just Took Abortion Pseudoscience to a New Low

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Oil Field Workers Keep Dying, and the Feds Want to Know Why

Mother Jones

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This story was originally published by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Journalism and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The oil boom in North Dakota and elsewhere has helped the US become the world’s leading energy provider and has captured the attention of Hollywood producers. It also has claimed the lives of dozens of oil field workers.

Now, that fallout from the boom is drawing renewed attention from government scientists.

In the largest study of its kind, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which investigates the causes of workplace health problems, said it intends to examine the factors that cause injuries and accidents in the oil fields in an effort to improve safety.

Scientists from the institute will distribute questionnaires starting next year to 500 oil field workers in North Dakota, Texas and one other state that will be determined in the coming months.

“This is a high-hazard industry, and different states have different levels of maturity when it comes to safety and health for this workforce,” said Kyla Retzer, a Denver-based epidemiologist with the institute’s oil and gas program, which will be administering the study.

A recent investigation by Reveal showed how major oil companies avoid accountability for workers’ deaths in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota and Montana. On average, someone dies about every six weeks from an accident in the Bakken—at least 74 since 2006, according to the first comprehensive accounting of such deaths using data obtained from Canadian and US regulators. The number of deaths is likely higher because federal regulators don’t have a systematic way to record oil- and gas-related deaths, and the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration doesn’t include certain fatalities.

In response to Reveal’s investigation, the federal agency pledged to step up enforcement against major oil companies and scrutinize speed bonuses in the Bakken, which some critics fear undermine safety.

As part of the new study, workers will be asked the hours they work and whether they wear protective gear as well as whether employers typically provide written safety policies and make their employees aware of their right to stop a job when they spot a potential safety hazard. Truck drivers in the industry will be asked whether they are paid by the hour or the load and whether their employers require that they drive in bad weather. The institute is collecting comments from the public on the forthcoming survey through Sept. 8.

Scientists plan to ask energy companies for permission to invite workers at man camps, which house laborers; trucking centers and other facilities to participate in the survey. The results of the study, which will be finished by early 2017, will be published in peer-reviewed health and safety journals. In addition, scientists intend to share their findings with federal OSHA officials and make specific recommendations on potential improvements at safety or oil and gas industry conferences.

“Sometimes, health and safety is not a top priority,” Retzer said. “We haven’t had a lot of opportunities to talk to workers directly. We want to better understand what their concerns are and how we can address them.”

Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, dismissed the institute’s focus on hazards in the oil fields.

“I do not have any facts that would lead me to the conclusion that there are major concerns,” said Cutting, whose council represents more than 550 companies in the oil and gas industry. “I think North Dakota is very much in line with other states as far as putting safety as priority one. Gathering that kind of (survey) information will go a long way to pointing out the fact that the industry has a robust safety culture.”

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Oil Field Workers Keep Dying, and the Feds Want to Know Why

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