Wednesday, December 30, 2009

State Oil and Gas Regulators Are Spread Too Thin to Do Their Jobs

Another good article by ProPublica about the amount of regulatory staff that actually exist to monitor the large numbers of natural gas wells in the united states. The oil and gas industry will tell you that county based regulations are not necessary because there are plenty of state regulations in place. There aren't that many state regulations, and the regulations that do exist are obviously difficult to enforce due to a widespread shortage of inspectors.

by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica - December 30, 2009 12:38 pm EST

Larry Parrish knew something was wrong as soon as he wheeled his state-owned pickup off the West Virginia highway and onto the rocky field where the natural gas well was supposed to be. Oak trees 18 inches in diameter looked dead as boards, and brush as brown as kindling stretched across a piece of farmland the size of a football field.

The dead zone in this otherwise lush mountain country meant one thing to Parrish: Gas drillers had been illegally dumping briny water mixed with chemicals, and the waste had killed everything from the rusty well head all the way downhill into a creek. The worst part, Parrish said, was that the devastation could have been avoided if the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had had enough inspectors to make sure the state's growing number of gas wells were checked regularly.

"It was sad -- sickening," said Parrish, a former field inspector for the DEP's office of oil and gas. "It probably had been years since anybody had been out there."

West Virginia has added a handful of people to oversee its growing drilling industry since Parrish retired in 2006, but other than that not much has changed. For the state's 17 inspectors to visit West Virginia's 55,222 wells once a year, they would have to inspect nine wells a day, every day of the year -- no weekends, no vacations.

"We are doing what we can do," said Gene Smith, a regulatory compliance manager for West Virginia. "But that still leaves thousands of wells that are not inspected yearly or even every decade."

Regulators in other states are equally overwhelmed as they try to keep tabs on the nation's nearly one million active oil and gas wells, a number that's likely to climb as the feverish growth in natural gas exploration continues.

Search ProPublica's database [1] to find how many gas regulators work in your state.

A ProPublica investigation [1] comparing the rapid expansion of drilling in 22 states with staffing levels at the agencies charged with policing the wells found that the nation's capacity to enforce its environmental protections is weakening. The picture strikes at the heart of the industry's long-standing argument that state regulatory agencies will be more effective industry watchdogs than the federal government. More>>>