Madeleine Smith: Inspections

Although measures have been taken to hammer out the details of land inspections, one of the chief complaints from environmental groups like the Oil & Gas Accountability Project is that inspectors are few and far between.  The Project, a subdivision of Earthworks, a self-identified environmental watchdog group, created a Colorado Model County Oil and Gas Regulations document intended to be used by all states as a template for its own plan (Earthworks, 2003).  One highlight of this document states that inspectors be required to only give one hour’s notice before their arrival, severely limiting the ability of companies to attempt to cover anything up for the inspections.

However, a 2012 Earthworks study that included six states, claimed that “hundreds of thousands of active oil and gas wells go without government inspection in any given year, and fines for regulatory violations are too small to change drilling company behavior” (Zeller, 2012).  Furthermore, “The analysis suggested that state regulators are often understaffed, underfunded, or otherwise unable to keep pace with rapidly expanding oil and gas exploration and the attending risk of spills, leaks, contamination and accidents that might arise through negligence or deliberate shortcutting” (Zeller, 2012).

Inspectors at the state level are important in keeping drilling companies in check on a more regular basis than national inspectors from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) since oftentimes BLM inspectors are spread extremely thin.  Ironically, state inspectors are actually few and far between in booming states such as North Dakota in 2013 and BLM officials are a much more common sight, according to Susan L., a field compliance coordinator working on drilling sites there.  BLM regional offices are often spread across states in an effort to keep federal oversight present. 

Inspectors across the country are supposed to visit well sites regularly to check for proper labeling of chemicals and mechanical components, security diagrams, safety plans and Spill Control and Countermeasure (SPCC) plans.  Inspectors also look to make sure well signs are openly displayed with proper information where anyone can find it and that equipment is made with specific types of steel or other appropriate metals.  Susan also said that it is becoming increasingly more common for companies to now hold internal regulatory inspections making sure that all of these rules are followed.  The inspection process can be sped up substantially if state or national inspector arrives at a site and there are records showing that the company is proactively following all of the rules.

The responsibilities taken by companies to perform inspections should be comforting to the public since study results revealed that only an estimated 1 in 10 of about 155,000 wells in Pennsylvania and Ohio were inspected per year by outside inspectors (Nearing, 2012).  A shift toward putting more internal pressure on companies to make sure they are complying with regulations would aid in better record-keeping and therefore easier and less time-consuming regulation for state officials.  Colorado is one state that has begun trying to increase efficiency to supplement the hiring of new inspectors by training these officials in computerizing records and giving them access to full well histories on laptops that travel with them to sites (Lustgarten, 2009).  With the number of wells having gone up over 149% since 2003, this type of action is crucial to maintain on a widespread basis because it is just not feasible for the number of inspectors to keep pace with the industry the way they are operating now (Lustgarten, 2009).

The effort by states to regulate effectively is apparent, but without the manpower to actively inspect and enforce regularly, there is no way that the rules and regulations can reach their potential impact within the current structure of the system.  The chart below shows the proportion of wells inspected and total well numbers in various states as of 2010.