High Risk Wells Escape Federal Eye

Tuesday, June 17, 2014 @ 05:06 PM gHale

Four in 10 new oil and gas wells near national forests and fragile watersheds or otherwise identified as higher pollution risks escape federal inspection, unchecked by an agency struggling to keep pace with America’s drilling boom.

Roughly half or more of wells on federal and Indian lands did not undergo inspection in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, despite potential harm that has led to efforts in some communities to ban new drilling, according to a report published on The Associated Press.

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Government data obtained by the AP point to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as so overwhelmed by a boom in fracking that it has been unable to keep up with inspections of some of the highest priority wells. That’s an agency designation based on a greater need to protect against possible water contamination and other environmental and safety issues.

Factors also include whether the well is near a high-pressure formation or whether the drill operator lacks a clear track record of service.

“No one would have predicted the incredible boom of drilling on federal lands, and the number of wells we’ve been asked to process,” said the BLM’s deputy director, Linda Lance. Since fracking reached a height in 2009, about 90 percent of new wells on federal land end up drilled by the process, which involves pumping huge volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground.

“The current rate of inspections is simply not acceptable to us,” she said.

The agency oversees 100,000 oil and gas wells on public lands, 3,486 of which received the high priority designation.

According to BLM records for fiscal years 2009 to 2012, 1,400 of those high priority wells, spread across 13 states, did not get federal inspections. Wyoming had the most, 632, or 45 percent. South Dakota had 1 out of 2 wells uninspected, and Pennsylvania had 1 out of 6.

All higher risk wells ended up inspected in six states — Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Ohio and Texas.

More wells located on private lands, where state officials take the lead in ensuring they comply with environmental laws, have mixed results. Nationwide, there were nearly 500,000 producing gas wells in 2012, according to Energy Information Administration (EIA) data. More than 1,800 new wells began drilling in March alone.

Dennis Willis, a former BLM field officer in Price, Utah, said he routinely provided input on oil leasing and drilling decisions on federal land before his retirement in 2009. He described a situation of chronic underfunding dating to at least the early 2000s, when BLM management made clear that issuing new permits would be a priority over other tasks, according to a 2002 memorandum from supervisors in Utah to field officers. At the time, fracking was becoming more widely used.

In interviews, BLM officials acknowledged persistent problems in keeping up with inspections, but said they were not aware of any major safety issues to date arising from the uninspected wells.

Lance said BLM field managers are making judgment calls to minimize the risk of potential harm to surrounding communities. The agency also is reviewing whether it needs to slow down the pace of permits to ensure public safety.

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