EARTHWORKS

Environmental group seeks more oil, gas inspectors

Coloradoan | Bobby Magill

March 21, 2012
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When a contractor for EOG Resources was caught dumping radioactive sand into an unpermitted and unlined pit on March 8 near Grover northeast of Fort Collins, it was a state oil and gas field inspector who caught the company in the act during a routine oil well field inspection.

The inspector, John Montoya, was one of only nine field inspectors employed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC - inspectors whose job it is to keep tabs on more than 46,835 active oil and gas wells across the entire state, according to COGCC data.

On Tuesday, the environmental group Earthworks and its Durango-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project, or OGAP, released a report calling for the COGCC to hire more inspectors and accused the agency of inadequate inspection practices, being unable to keep up with the rate of new wells being drilled and rarely fining companies found to be violating state oil and gas regulations.

The state's few inspectors have an ever-growing number of wells to track. Drilling began on nearly 3,000 new oil and gas wells statewide last year, up from more than 2,700 new wells in 2010, COGCC data show.

Agency Acting Director Thom Kerr did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

"The report isn't an indictment of inspectors," OGAP Director Gwen Lachelt said. "Indeed, the report starkly reveals that there are too few inspectors to go around."

The COGCC's 15 inspection staffers - nine COGCC field inspectors, three environmental protection specialists and three inspection supervisors - are spread across 13 offices scattered throughout the state, three of which are in the Denver area and one in Weld County, where more than 17,000 oil and gas wells are active, according to a February COGCC report.

The COGCC also employs 13 other environmental specialists, who responded to 516 oil and gas spills and fluid releases and managed more than 1,000 incident remediation projects in 2011, according to the COGCC report.

"With 43,000 active wells in Colorado in 2010, and just 15 inspectors in Colorado, each inspector here was responsible for an average of 2,890 active wells - more than twice the number of their Pennsylvania counterparts," the Earthworks report says. "It is nearly impossible for one inspector to visit, let alone carefully inspect 2,890 well sites a year. In 2010, each of COGCC's 15 inspectors performed, on average, 1,082 inspections."

Tisha Schuller, CEO of the energy industry's trade group, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said COGCC staff has doubled since the state's drilling activity peaked in 2008.

With the well numbers increasing, the association supports the addition of two inspectors statewide for the next fiscal year, she said.

"We support a strong regulatory system in Colorado," she said.

The Earthworks report objects to the COGCC's website, which makes it "extremely difficult to determine if the number of violations is increasing or decreasing, which rules are most often violated or if there are companies that are particularly bad actors."

The group is urging the state to improve its tracking of violators and to improve the transparency and user-friendliness of the COGCC website.

Earthworks also is calling for the COGCC to assess greater fines on violators.

According to the COGCC's "alleged violation" report for the radioactive sand dumping incident issued March 14, EOG Resources could face a fine of up to $1,000 per day for the violation, but unless the incident has a significant impact to public health, the fine could be capped at $10,000.

The inspector gave EOG Resources until June 14 to fully clean up the radioactive sand.

Tagged with: fracking, enforcement, colorado, cogcc

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