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Report finds haphazard enforcement of oil and gas regs

Courtesy Earthworks.

Watchdog group calls for moratorium on new permits pending overhaul of regulatory framework

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — With only one inspector for every 3,000 active oil and gas wells in Colorado, it’s probably not surprising that the state’s oversight of drilling operations is often haphazard and inconsistent, with enforcement of violations often left to the discretion of individual inspectors.

Colorado isn’t alone in facing regulatory challenges. In a six-state study (Colorado, New Mexico,New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas), an Earthworks report found that 53 to 91 percent of active wells are operating with no inspections — that’s a total of about 350,000 wells that may, or may not, be in compliance with state regulations.

The report also found that violations are frequently not reported and that penalties are often not timely or adequate. The biggest problem, according to Earthworks, is that none of the states studied have enough inspection capacity or rigorous protocols and inspection standards.

Read the executive summary: Breaking All the Rules: The Crisis in Oil & Gas Regulatory Enforcement.

The full report: Breaking All the Rules: The Crisis in Oil & Gas Regulatory Enforcement.

Another big problem in Colorado is accessibility and transparency. Information on violations is available on a well-by-well basis, but the overall number of violations is not publicly available. And even though some inspections show unsatisfactory results, the violations may not be recorded and thus remain invisible to the public.

“State enforcement of oil and gas rules is broken,” said Earthworks’ senior staff attorney Bruce Baizel. “Across the country, public health and safety are at risk because states are failing to uphold the rule of law. Until states can guarantee they are adequately enforcing their own rules on an ongoing basis, state agencies must not permit new drilling,” he said.

Failure to enforce oil and gas regulations means that states are not seeking, documenting, sanctioning, deterring, and cleaning up problems associated with irresponsible oil and gas operations such as chemical spills, equipment failure, accidents, and discharges into drinking water supplies.

Key findings of the study included:

  • More than half of all wells go uninspected each year: hundreds of thousands of active oil and gas wells across the country are not inspected.
  • Companies that are found in violation are rarely penalized: ambiguous policies and rules leave the consequences for violations unclear to the public, companies and even the inspectors themselves. Consequences vary from violation to violation.
  • Penalties are so weak that it is cheaper for violators to pay the penalty than comply with the law: the total value of financial penalties in each state studied is less than or equivalent to the value of the gas contained in one single well.

“I left my home in DISH because gas development threatened my family’s health”, said Calvin Tillman, former mayor of DISH, Texas. “That’s because Texas oil and gas regulators are ill-equipped and unmotivated to enforce their own rules. This report shows that rules and regs aren’t worth the paper they’re written on if they’re not enforced.”

Drawn from both the data analysis and the stakeholder interviews, the report makes numerous common sense policy and regulatory recommendations to address the enforcement crisis, including:

  • Increasing inspection/enforcement resources until they meet a systematically and transparently developed minimum;
  • Clarifying and updating rules so inspectors, companies, and the public know when operators are in violation, and the consequences;
  • Formalizing the public’s role in enforcement, including sharing information with the public and allowing citizen suits.

“It’s critical that people everywhere be protected from the public health and environmental dangers associated with fracking,” said Food & Water Watch director Wenonah Hauter. “The fact that states are failing to enforce their own laws reinforces the fact that fracking isn’t safe, even when regulated. That’s why the federal government needs to ban this dangerous, toxic process.”

“This report shows that the industry’s claim that ‘oil and gas development doesn’t threaten public health’ is a fraud,” said Earthworks Executive Director Jennifer Krill. “Until common sense changes are implemented, states must refuse to issue new drilling permits,” she concluded.

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