How well is the BLM enforcing the laws covering oil and gas wells on public and private land? Not well enough

In Fiscal Year 2011, the BLM conducted an Internal Control Review (ICR) of the onshore oil and gas Inspection and Enforcement (I&E) program. The ICR reviewed ten field offices with major oil and gas responsibilities in California, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, North Dakota, Louisiana, Kentucky and Arkansas. Among the findings: A number of offices have low-quality environmental inspections as they struggle to keep up with exploration and production activity.

The review made me very concerned about the lack of oversight of oil and gas production on federal oil and gas leases; I got the sense that it's like a party of teenagers with no parents at home. Many rules are going without enforcement. And in some cases I felt that the BLM staff may be having a tough time, trying to enforce the laws without proper resources to do the job appropriately.  Just some examples of what was found in this review:

  • In Wyoming, "there was an overall lack of enforcement of identified issues and/or non-compliant items in many records, many conditions of approval (COA) not being followed that were not identified in the inspections as being issues, and non-compliant items requiring action."
  • In New Mexico, Environmental Inspection records were found to be inadequate in detail and not in accordance with the handbook, and it does not appear that non-compliance orders are issued for environmental issues or violations. The reviewers found that the inspectors telephone and ask an operator to comply with surface standards, without documenting the call as a Verbal Warning.
  • In North Dakota: "Not all of the required inspections are being performed due to the demand from the ongoing permitting workload for drilling."
  • In Bakersfield, California the review found that "The drilling inspection process in Bakersfield is best summarized as a light review of drilling activity and, most importantly, exhibited a lack of proper documentation..... Bakersfield is not performing casing or cementing inspections."
  • In Oklahoma, the reviewer was concerned with the lack of environmental protection measures, including unfenced open reserve pits with liquids after drilling operations and erosion of pit berms without sediment traps.

There is a lot more in this report, but the bottom line was that the BLM Inspection and Enforcement program has a long way to go before the public can have confidence that the agency is fulfilling its responsibilities to protect our public lands and clean air and clean water, and ensure that laws are being followed. Some problems may be solved by additional resources devoted to inspections and enforcement, but money alone won't solve the problem. Protecting the environment needs to be a much higher priority for the agency.

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