Regulators Failed To Inspect Thousands Of High-Priority Fracking Wells, Report Finds

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"Regulators Failed To Inspect Thousands Of High-Priority Fracking Wells, Report Finds"

In this Dec. 5, 2012 photo, the sun sets behind an oil pump jack and the Rocky Mountains near Fredrick, Colo.

In this Dec. 5, 2012 photo, the sun sets behind an oil pump jack and the Rocky Mountains near Fredrick, Colo.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Ed Andrieski

A federal report obtained by the Associated Press says the U.S. government hasn’t adequately inspected thousands of possibly high-risk oil and gas wells for water and environmental damage.

The report, authored by the Government Accountability Office, has yet to be published, but according to the AP has found “substantial gaps in oversight” by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management in overseeing oil and gas wells, a troubling finding that comes during a time when fracking is booming in some parts of the United States. According to the report, the BLM didn’t inspect more than 2,100 of the 3,702 wells that it had specified as “high priority” — meaning the well operators need to do more to prevent water or environmental contamination — drilled from 2009 through 2012.

The AP states that the BLM used outdated science to produce its oil and gas well policies, and that it hasn’t reviewed or updated a number of its rules in light of new oil and gas technology — something that’s required by a 2011 executive order. The report found that the the BLM “cannot accurately and efficiently identify whether federal and Indian resources are properly protected or that federal and Indian resources are at risk of being extracted without agency approval.”

The AP states that the reason behind many of these failures to inspect oil and gas wells is a result of a too-small budget and staff, and that the BLM will update some of its policies later this year. In 2013, when the federal sequester went into effect, the BLM enacted a hiring freeze and offered “Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments and Voluntary Early Retirement Authority” to several employees.

Emily Wurth, Program Director for Food and Water Watch, said in a statement to ThinkProgress that the report’s findings were “highly concerning.”

“This is yet another reminder that the oil and gas industry is expanding too quickly, and that cash-strapped state and federal government entities aren’t able to keep up,” she said. “When fracking cannot be safely regulated, we all pay the price in the form of accidents, leaks, spills, and air and water contamination.”

The AP’s reporting of the GAO study comes less than a week after two Cornell researchers said that the Environmental Protection Agency has drastically underestimated the potency of methane emissions and, in doing so, has underestimated the effect fracking has on climate change. The researchers — Professors Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea — said that even regulations that would help curb methane leaks from oil and gas wells wouldn’t be enough.

“Enacting regulations that encourage the industry to spend more money fixing leaks and stopping venting is too late,” Ingraffea said.

A study from April confirms the researchers’ statements on methane. It found that emissions from natural gas wells in Pennsylvania were 100 to 1,000 times greater than federal estimates. On average, drilling at seven wells in Pennsylvania emitted an average of 34 grams of methane per second, a far cry from the EPA estimates of 0.04 grams to 0.30 grams of methane per second. This month, a study from the University of Colorado Boulder yielded similar results, finding oil and gas operations from the Front Range in Colorado emitted almost three times as much methane than previously estimated.

“These discrepancies are substantial,” the study’s lead author Gabrielle Petron told the Charleston Gazette. “Emission estimates or ‘inventories’ are the primary tool that policymakers and regulators use to evaluate air quality and climate impacts of various sources, including oil and gas sources…if they’re off, it’s important to know.”

In February, Colorado became the first state to approve regulations that will seek to limit emissions from fracking sites by installing leak-minimizing equipment and regularly inspecting wells for leaks. Dan Grossman, the Environmental Defense Fund’s Rocky Mountain regional director told the Hill that Colorado’s regulations serve as “a model for the country.”

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