Federal Government Not Inspecting “High-Priority” Gas and Oil Wells

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

A federal survey of 14 states, including California, found government has failed to inspect thousands of oil and gas wells considered at higher risk for contaminating water.

A report from the U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO) said the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) didn't inspect 2,100 of 3,702 “high-priority” wells drilled between 2009 and 2012. The finding was of particular concern because the oil and gas industry in recently years has embraced enhanced technology, like fracking and acidization, that pose a greater threat to groundwater and other water sources than conventional drilling techniques.

The GAO had a number of bones to pick with BLM. The bureau relied on “outdated rules and guidelines” and had “limited coordination with states.” The former is important because dangerous fracking technology is relatively new. And the latter resulted in duplicative inspections of some wells and no inspections of others. California was one of only four states that had agreements with the federal government to coordinate inspections.

The inspections of more than 14,000 wells on federal and American Indian lands drilled during the time period covered are required under the BLM's own rules. The BLM is the primary agency responsible for overseeing oil and gas development on those properties.

The GAO report found that data was missing on 1,784 of those wells, which were not properly identified as high- or low-priority. Consequently, the number of uninspected high-risk wells could be much higher. The other states in the GAO study were: Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

California was the only state among the 14 that did not have disclosure rules for the chemicals being pumped into the ground. Shortly thereafter, the state passed Senate Bill 4, which set a January 15 deadline for adopting regulations to require disclosure of just some of the chemicals used in fracking, known in polite company as hydraulic fracturing.

The report wasn't clear how effective those disclosure laws in other state were. For example, Utah passed a regulation that drillers using fracking had to report the chemicals used—within 60 days of completing the process. Oil and gas companies maintain that the toxic brew of chemicals injected into the ground, with enormous amounts of water under high pressure, to break up rock formations is a trade secret and should remain so. Techniques like fracking and acid stimulation, which inject large amounts of hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acid into wells to dissolve rock formations, are used to reach deposits out of reach via conventional drilling.

Critics think their reluctance has something to do with the chemicals' extreme toxicity.

Fracking and acid jobs, despite being around for decades, were not regulated in California at all until Senate Bill 4 was passed last September. Regulation became more imperative when new science and technology facilitated a rebirth of the state's oil and gas industry, reviving abandoned wells and dangling the possibility that 15.3 billion barrels of oil could be tapped in the state's Monterey Shale.

Critics say fracking has been linked to groundwater contamination, air pollution, releases of methane gas, micro-earthquakes and sink holes.

While critics of the oil and gas industry pointed out the inspection deficiencies as safety issues, the GAO report was embraced by those who think BLM policies and procedures were slowing the drilling industry down and probably costing the federal government money. A Congressional Research Service (pdf) report last month found that oil production declined 6% on federal land between 2009 and 2013 and gas production fell 28%. Oil and gas production were up 61% and 33%, respectively, on nonfederal lands during the same period. 

‒Ken Broder


To Learn More:

GAO: Feds Fail to Inspect High-Priority Gas Wells (by Timothy Cama, The Hill)

Fed Govt Failed to Inspect Higher Risk Oil Wells (by Hope Yen, Associated Press)

Feds Failing to Inspect Thousands of Oil and Gas Wells: Report (by Sarah Lazare, Common Dreams)

Updated Guidance, Increased Coordination, and Comprehensive Data Could Improve BLM’s Management and Oversight (U.S. Government Accountability Office) (pdf)

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