Inspections and enforcement of oil and gas wells not protecting communities or the environment

In a recent post I blogged about widespread concern across the country of insufficient regulation, inspection, and enforcement by state regulators.

A scathing new investigation by ProPublica shines a much brighter light on this issue. The investigation examined 32 states and found that regulatory staffing levels have not even come close to keeping up with growth in the industry. Some of the most terrifying findings:

  • Texas has over 270,000 wells (including disposal wells) and only 83 field inspectors. Nearly half of the wells had not been inspected in the five years between 2001 and 2006, and 30 percent of spill complaints were inspected late or not at all.
  • West Virginia has over 55,000 wells and only 17 inspectors. A state official said: ""We are doing what we can do, [b]ut that still leaves thousands of wells that are not inspected yearly or even every decade." The number of new wells drilled increased 53 percent from 2003 to 2008 but regulatory staffing increased only 20 percent.
  • A report by our friends at the Western Organization of Resource Councils found that the Bureau of Land Management reduced inspection and enforcement dramatically during the Bush years. The agency issued fewer enforcement actions in 2007 than it did in 1999, inspectors spent a third less time on environmental inspections, and inspectors completed only 15 percent of the highest-priority inspections.
  • New York State has seen a 676 percent increase in new wells drilled each year, but actually cut its inspectors by 20 percent.

ProPublica created a database of the inspection capacities in 32 states. You can check your own state on their website.

ProPublica quotes a former Schlumberger hydraulic fracturing employee who worked in Texas, where the Railroad Commission regulates oil and gas wells, for several decades: "I never saw a Railroad Commissioner on one of the sites."

Never saw an inspector. Over several decades.

Not only are inspections low, but there are also serious concerns about the actions taken by state regulators if, and when, they do investigate a complaint.

In May, 2008 (almost two years ago), an outfitter in western Colorado drank his water and became ill. It turns out there were very high levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, in his water. This outfitter had to hire his own consultants to try to get to the bottom of what happened, and has completely lost his business. This case is still under investigation by the state regulators. That means that no one has been cited or fined. In the meantime, a spill has occurred in the same area and new drilling is planned for the area.

In December, 2007, over two years ago, there was an explosion caused by drilling in Bainbridge Township, Ohio. the State did not issue an order to install new water lines to affected homes until April, 2009. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources continued to issue drilling permits to this operator until the fall of 2009, almost two years after the accident, when it finally got serious about requiring new water lines to be put in place. Over 40 homes are still without clean water sources. The operator has not been fined. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources has found over 900 incidents of water contamination linked to oil or gas drilling, but has denied only two permits for environmental reasons.

In Pennsylvania, U.S. Energy violated the law over 300 times before the state issued a cease and desist order that prohibited new drilling. That company is now allowed to drill again and has been fined.

As I mentioned in a previous post, state regulations are not sufficiently protective to begin with. Even if they were, inspection and enforcement is frighteningly lax.

Does anyone feel protected out there besides the industry?