House Democrats call on Interior to reform oversight & enforcement
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — A new report compiled by the Democratic minority membership of the House Natural Resources Committee suggests that the oil and gas drilling industry has run amok, primarily due to spotty enforcement of health and safety regulations. Committee Democrats said the Department of Interior must reform its oversight of drilling on public lands.
Some companies started drilling before they had their final permits from the government. About 20 percent of the violations involved casing and cementing procedures intended to prevent leaks. In a letter accompanying the report, Reps. Edward Markey and Rush Holt asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to respond my March 9.
The report highlights numerous violations during the past few years that posed risks to the health and safety of workers and the environment, including a 2008 well blowout in North Dakota that wasn’t reported to authorities immediately; an operator in Mississippi who did not install a blowout preventer or any other safety equipment to control the well in the event of a blowout; and an improper casing and cement job in Wyoming that led to leaks of water and gas through the cement of the well.
The Interior Department collected less than $300,000 in fines during a 13-year period starting in the mid-1990s — a mere drop in the bucket compared to the enormous profits reported by oil and gas companies during that span.
“It would be an overstatement to even call these fines a slap on the wrist. For oil and gas companies making billions from drilling on America’s public lands, this kind of inadequate oversight and enforcement is little more than a pin prick,” said Rep. Ed Markey, ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee. “This report indicates that confidence in the oversight of drilling on public lands should be limited, at best.”
“It’s incomprehensible. In the past decade, oil and gas companies have committed thousands of drilling violations, yet they have faced a grand total of $300,000 in fines,” said Rep. Rush Holt, a New Jersey Democrat, “That’s roughly a single minute of oil company profits-the equivalent of levying a 10-cent fine against someone who earns $50,000 a year. Can anyone seriously argue that these fines are sufficient to deter wrongdoing or that they reflect the very real risks that drilling poses to the environment and public health?”
Between 1998 to 2011, the Department of Interior found more than two thousand violation by oil and gas companies drilling on taxpayer-owned lands. Some were issued to companies for not installing blowout preventers. Some were for poorly protecting the walls of the well from potentially leaking gas, oil or fluids. In dozens of cases, oil and gas companies even started to drill on federal lands before their permit was fully approved.
The report found that the total amount of fines issued for these years of violations to more than 300 companies in 17 states that put the health of workers, drinking water and taxpayer land at risk was only $273,875 — a tiny amount in relationship to the huge profits oil and gas companies make from drilling on public lands.
Major findings of the report include:
- There were a total of 2,025 safety and drilling violations that were issued to 335 companies drilling in seventeen states between February 1998 and February 2011, 549 of which were classified as “major” by committee staff.
- DOI issues fines in an inconsistent manner, sometimes issuing monetary penalties to one company for a violation, and then does not do so with a second company for an identical violation.
- In fifty-four instances, operators were given written citations because they began drilling on federal lands before the permit to drill was fully processed and approved.
- Of the major violations, 53 percent (293 of 549 violations) were related to non-functional blowout preventers.
- Twenty-one percent (113 of 549) major environmental or safety violations were issued because of deficiencies in casing and cementing programs. Appropriate casing and cementing is the first line of defense in protecting underground sources of drinking water.
- Only 125 (six percent) of all the violations were levied a monetary fine. Although the violations that occurred were spread across 17 states, violators in eight states (AK, AR, LA, ND, NV, OH, SD, and WV) were never issued a monetary fine of any amount during the entire period examined.
Due to the findings of the report, Reps. Markey and Holt today transmitted the analysis to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar asking him to reform and enhance his agency’s oversight of drilling on federal lands. The letter from Reps. Markey and Holt to Secretary Salazar can be found HERE.
“As industry expands the use of hydraulic fracturing to tap into more oil and gas reserves across the nation, including on federal lands, it is imperative that the process is performed in a safe and environmentally sound manner that protect surface and subsurface resources,” write the two Congressmen to Salazar. “A strong and consistent approach to oversight and enforcement of drilling practices on federal lands is important in advancing that goal.”