New report: "Puny fines, scant enforcement leave drilling violators with little to fear"

UPDATE: click here for a link to a public version of the article.

Today's Greenwire reports on a comprehensive review of oil and gas enforcement data. NRDC has been saying for some time that one of the biggest problems with protecting public health and the environment from the threats from oil and gas production is that enforcement of the laws is inadequate and, when there is enforcement, penalties are so low that there is no incentive provided for companies to change how they do business and abide by the law. Of course, another significant concern is that the laws on the books are not strong enough, but at a minimum, the laws on the books should not be ignored because enforcement and penalties are too low.

The article is currently only available by paid subscription, but later today the information will be available to the public. For now, I am pasting the introduction to the article below:

Oil and gas drillers who pollute groundwater, spill toxic chemicals or break other rules have little to fear from the inspectors and agencies regulating the surge in American petroleum production.

A Greenwire review of enforcement data from the largest drilling states shows that only a small percentage of violations result in fines, and the fines that are levied often amount to little more than a rounding error for billion-dollar companies.

In Texas, 96 percent of the 80,000 violations by oil and gas drillers in 2009 resulted in no enforcement action. West Virginia, a state with 56,000 wells, issued 19 penalties last year. And Wyoming, the center of Rocky Mountain energy, collected $15,500 in fines in 2010.

Pennsylvania, the most aggressive about fining violators, sought penalties for more than a quarter of the violations found last year. It levied fines for 4 percent of the violations, with the penalties totaling $3.7 million. The largest of those was a $900,000 fine against a drilling company that contaminated the water of 16 homes.

That was less than the profits the company makes in three hours.

Some states don't even track key enforcement data, so regulators don't know which companies have already been fined repeatedly.

The article goes on to discuss uneven violation tracking and penalties, and other extremely disturbing situations where the public is placed at risk because companies are treated with kid gloves.