Environmental well inspections falling short, GAO says

Environmental inspections of oil and gas facilities on public lands have soared since 2007, but federal investigators said Monday that the government is doing a poor job of targeting the riskiest sites.

In a new report, the Government Accountability Office faulted the Bureau of Land Management for not including information about the environmental inspection history of many wells in its central database for tracking oil and gas facilities on public lands.

As a result, the inspection prioritization process “does not have sufficient information to ensure that wells receiving inspections are those that pose the greatest environmental risk,” said the GAO, Congress’ investigative arm. Other problems include “inconsistent documentation of inspections and enforcement actions and challenges with retaining and hiring environmental staff in some offices.”

Slowdown: Colorado fracturing stresses regulators as permit bids soar

Bureau staff acknowledge that they sometimes have to go by their own memory in deciding which wells to visit, because the bureau’s computer database doesn’t allow them to flag individual wells as high priority for environmental concerns.

The Interior Department agency said it is working on changes that will help target environmental inspections to sites with the highest risk, including adopting electronic permits that will provide additional data as recommended by the GAO.

Data on the environmental condition of many wells is also incomplete. According to the GAO, there is no record of an inspection for about 41 percent of the roughly 60,330 oil and gas wells on lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

Some of the gaps are credited to a temporary shutdown of the database, under a court order, in 2005. Inspection records also may have been deleted as a result of lease transfers and sales.

More inspections

Still, the government agency is inspecting oil and gas facilities more often.

In 2007, the bureau conducted 10,941 environmental inspections at federal oil and gas wells and facilities. In fiscal 2012, that number had climbed to 17,866.

The increase has been driven by a greater concentration of wells at a single site, making it easier to verify the environmental conditions around more than one at a time.

The report documented other changes in bureau workload, including a continued decline in drilling permit applications overall, as the oil industry’s interest has turned to drilling in dense rock formations more often found on private land.

Lower natural gas prices also have contributed to a decrease in the number of applications for permits.

North Dakota boom

Oil drilling is the exception. The bureau’s North Dakota field office has been swamped with applications to drill, amid a new oil boom in the Bakken formation. While the office had just 84 applications for permits to drill in fiscal 2007, it logged 287 last year — a more than 240 percent increase.

To process the rush of permit proposals, the bureau assembled strike teams with roughly a dozen staffers from other field offices and charged them with processing the applications for about three weeks.

Long waits

The Government Accountability Office said it was unable to reliably assess the number of days it took the bureau to process drilling permit applications before fiscal 2012 because the relevant data was often missing from the agency’s central database.

But in a 2013 internal memorandum cited by the report, the bureau said it had not been able to meet a 30-day statutory deadline to either approve or defer completed permit applications.

And in fiscal 2012, the GAO found, it took an average of 229 days for the agency to process drilling permit applications.

Also on FuelFix:

How fracking transforms fortunes, land