State well inspections ‘inadequate’
Times Union | Brian Nearing
July 17, 2012
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ALBANY — The state lags in inspecting oil and gas wells, and is not ready to handle what could be a deluge of wells if it allows natural gas hydraulic fracturing, according to a report issued Tuesday by group against fracking.
Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project compared New York's inspection and enforcement history for petroleum wells to states where fracking is already in use — Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, New Mexico and Colorado.
Looking at records from New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, the report found one in four of the state's 10,134 wells were inspected by DEC during 2010.
That was far fewer than in Texas, where inspectors checked more than half of 282,900 wells that year, according to the report. But New York did better than Pennsylvania or Ohio, where only one in 10 of about 155,000 combined wells were inspected. Colorado and New Mexico inspected about 60 percent of 96,400 combined wells that year.
During the last decade, the number of wells in New York climbed from about 9,000 to nearly 10,500, while the number of inspections dropped from nearly 3,500 a year to about 2,500 a year. Most of the decline occurred between 2002 and 2003.
Current state rules do not set maximum periods of time between well inspections or the number of wells assigned to any one inspector.
Said Nadia Steinzor, Earthworks' study coordinator, "We can't say why inspections dropped off ... one can surmise it was due to cutbacks or staffing changes, or perhaps some internal decision about the status of the industry and DEC oversight."
Hydrofracking relies on a high-pressure blend of chemicals, sand and water pumped deep underground to break up gas-bearing rock formations, freeing gas to rise up the well to the surface. Opponents cite potential risks of pollution by fracking chemicals and naturally occuring methane to water and air. The industry says the practice is safe when done properly.
DEC continues to review a roadmap issued last fall, called a draft generic environmental impact statement, to allow hydrofracking in the gas-rich Marcellus shale formation that extends from south of Buffalo, through the Southern Tier and the Finger Lakes into the western Catskills. If hydrofracking is allowed, hundreds of new wells could be drilled each year.
DEC knows it will need more inspectors for hydrofracking but has not decided how many, said agency spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, and the state "will only review the number of (hydrofracking) permits that we can responsibly oversee given staffing levels."
The number of DEC staffers for oil and gas regulation has declined in recent years. There are now 17 inspectors, compared to 19 in 2007 and 20 in 2003, she said.
DeSantis said the state's draft plan would require at least 13 inspections during each well drilling and completion. The Earthworks report recommended the state set minimum requirements on how many inspectors must be in place based on the total number of wells and on what percentage of active wells must be inspected each year.
Published reports indicate Gov. Andrew Cuomo may be poised to allow hydrofracking to commence in certain Southern Tier localities where political support is the strongest. Proponents there see fracking as a source of economic development and jobs.
A DEC hydrofracking advisory group with representatives from industry, government and environmental organizations was created last fall to recommend appropriate state regulatory staffing and how to pay for it. The panel has not met since December.
"There are no deliberations or work product from this group," said Kate Hudson, director of the New York City Watershed Program for the environmental group Riverkeeper and a former regional attorney for DEC Hudson.
DeSantis said the advisory group will not meet again before a decision on hydrofracking is reached.