Massive Fracking on Federal Lands Overwhelms Critical Inspections

Forty percent of the highest-risk oil and gas wells drilled on federal lands over the past several years have gone uninspected by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), according to a recent Associated Press (AP) analysis. The massive boom in oil and gas drilling on federal and tribal lands, primarily using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) techniques, has resulted in a one-third increase in oil and gas wells since 2007, with a total of more than 100,000 wells.

According to the AP analysis, 1,400 of the approximately 3,500 wells in 13 states classified as “high priority” due to their potential risk for water contamination and other health and safety concerns had not been federally inspected between 2009 and 2012. Half of the high-priority wells in South Dakota hadn’t been inspected, while Wyoming had the largest number (632) of uninspected wells. The BLM has agreements regarding well inspections on federal lands with regulators in California, Colorado, Nevada, and Wyoming. All high-risk wells were inspected in six states – Alabama, Mississippi, Michigan, New York, Ohio, and Texas.

A May 2014 report on the same issue from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that 2,100 of 3,702 high-priority wells in 14 states hadn’t been inspected by the BLM between the 2009 and 2012 fiscal years. The AP report found that the GAO analysis overcounted the number of high-priority wells and the number of uninspected wells due to duplicate entries in the BLM database. The GAO also found that the BLM database was missing information on the priority status of almost 1,800 wells. The GAO report noted that “BLM is hindered in its ability to provide reasonable assurance that federal and Indian resources are properly managed and protected because not all BLM field offices have comprehensive and reliable data identifying the location of federal and Indian oil and gas resources or existing and new wellbores — data needed to protect oil and gas resources.”

The amount of funding that BLM has received for inspecting oil and gas wells has declined over the past several years. If approved by Congress, the BLM's 2015 budget request of $150 million for oil and gas operations would allow the agency to conduct the bulk of its required inspections over three years, in part by collecting fees from oil and gas companies. Unlike past years, $48 million will be earmarked for inspections. However, the BLM has made similar budget requests over the last several years with little success.

BLM has also had difficulty recruiting and retaining inspectors with the necessary technical expertise. A February 2014 GAO report noted that the turnover of petroleum engineers at the BLM was over 20 percent, more than twice the national average. While a petroleum engineer could get a starting salary of $90,000 in the private sector, the BLM typically pays $35,000. This year's appropriations bill would allow the BLM to increase inspector salaries to around $44,000.

The problem of uninspected, high-risk oil and gas wells on federal lands are likely just the tip of the iceberg – as of 2012, there were approximately 500,000 gas-producing wells alone in the United States, with states responsible for inspecting the vast majority of these wells. Given increasing reports of water contamination and high levels of air pollution from oil and gas well operations, it is essential that improved efforts be put in place to ensure that our nation’s oil and gas wells are receiving adequate oversight.

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