State Enforcement Too Weak to Protect the Public from Violations by Oil and Gas Producers

States are failing to enforce oil and gas extraction rules, according to a report released Sept. 25 by Earthworks, an environmental group.

The report, Breaking All the Rules, analyzes enforcement data, including well inspections, violations, enforcement actions, and penalties in six states: Colorado, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. The report concludes that state inspection agencies are inadequately staffed, and inspections are arbitrarily conducted.

Key findings include:

  • Every year hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells – 53-91 percent of the almost 350,000 wells operating in the six states studied – are operating without inspections.
  • When inspections do uncover violations, they often fail to formally record them; i.e., the decision about whether or not to record a violation is often left to the discretion of the individual inspector.
  • When violations are recorded, they result in few penalties.
  • When penalties are assessed, they provide little incentive for companies to stop violating environmental and safety rules.

As an example, take Texas. The state had 260,104 active wells in 2010, but only 88 inspectors (an average of 2,956 wells per inspector). Over half (53 percent) of the active wells in the state were left uninspected. Nonetheless, the state recorded 71,646 violations in 2010; less than one percent resulted in legal action. In 2009, Texas collected more than $2 million in penalties from oil and gas violations.

Breaking All the Rules provides practical recommendations for states to implement to fix this problem. For example: establishing a minimum inspector-to-well ratio and annual inspection-per-well requirements for each stage of development; establishing formal notice-of-violation procedures to use when rules are broken, coupled with penalties significant enough to deter violations; and documenting violations in a consistent manner and making such information available to the public.

State policymakers have a responsibility to protect the people they represent. These recommendations are a good roadmap for immediate action to ensure public confidence in our policymakers.

Image by flickr user World Resources, used under a Creative Commons license.

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