Ohio’s next challenge might be finding enough inspectors to keep up with drilling activity

Crain's Cleveland | Dan Shingler

December 3, 2012
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No one knows exactly how many shale gas wells will be drilled in Ohio in 2013, but most experts agree on one thing: it will likely be more than the state can inspect with its current roster of inspectors.

That’s why the state is making a hard push to hire and train more inspectors to keep the expected rush of new drillings up to code.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is the state agency charged with regulating oil and gas drilling in the state, and within it the Oil and Gas division handles inspections. It had 41 inspectors going into the fourth quarter of this year, up from 30 at the end of 2011, said ODNR spokeswoman Heidi Hetzel-Evans.

But by the spring, ONDR hopes to field about 80 full-time inspectors, as well as perhaps 10 other field staff members to support them, Ms. Evans said. The state’s trying to bring them into service in batches of eight to 12 and then have them begin by working with experienced inspectors, she said.

They’ll all work out of five field offices (they don’t do much drilling in Columbus) and some will specialize on injection well inspections, as four do currently, according to Ms. Evans.

Inspectors might play a key role in the state’s image going forward when it comes to shale gas and oil drilling. Government officials, from the governor to Ms. Evans herself, have often boasted lately that Ohio has some of the most stringent regulations in the nation when it comes to drilling – but the toughest regulations anywhere aren’t much good without inspectors to enforce them.

The role of inspectors is already being watched and there’s already contention over how well Ohio has conducted oil and gas well inspections generally. In September, the anti-fracking environmental group Earthworks issued a report that compared inspection rates in Ohio to those in some other gas-producing states. It took Ohio to task for the infrequency with which it found wells in the state were inspected, as well as enforcement actions the group claim are “inadequate to deter violators” of state regulations.

“They are stretched, obviously, very thin,” said Kari Matsko, a Lake County resident who founded the People’s Oil and Gas Collaborative-Ohio and works with Earthworks on anti-drilling issues.

According to Earthworks data, 91% of Ohio’s 64,378 active gas wells, most of them conventional vertical wells, were not inspected in 2010, the last year for which data was available. That’s the same inspection rate as in Pennsylvania, the group found — but it also found that both states are not inspecting wells nearly so often as oil and gas-producing states like Texas, New Mexico or Colorado. Only 57% of the active wells in Texas went uninspected in 2010, compared to 61% in New Mexico and 63% in Colorado, Earthworks found.

That report brought cries of foul from both state and industry officials.

Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said Earthworks did not take into account the age or activity of the wells in question, some of which are years or decades old and produce little or no gas and oil at this point.

State inspectors are on site when they need to be, Mr. Stewart said – including at several critical stages of each new well’s drilling and completion, which includes the pouring of cement casings and for the actual hydraulic fracturing of the shale.

ODNR’s Ms. Evans said the report also did not take into consideration the state’s recent efforts to hire more inspectors, or new state regulations that require inspections at critical points in a well’s lifecycle.

Earthworks attorney Bruce Baizel – who, incidentally sits on the board of the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations chaired by Mr. Stewart – said his group only compared similar data between states and did not set out to make any one state look bad.

“The data is what it is. I’m sorry they don’t like it,” Mr. Baizel said.

Ms. Evans said the that critical wells all are inspected.

“We have a 100% inspection rate for Ohio’s Class II injection wells and we currently have a 100% inspection rate on all shale wells,” Ms. Evans said.

ODNR expects drilling to peak in 2014 or 2015 and wants to be ready, Ms.Evans said, which means finding new inspectors. It’s looking for applicants, preferably with industry experience working in oil and gas drilling, or a background in geology.

It’s not that difficult to train a new inspector, said Louisiana petroleum engineer Jim Rike, who’s been training them along with other oil and gas workers and engineers since the 1970s. About a month of intensive classroom training and another month of field work with an experienced mentor can produce a quality inspector, he said.

“The inspectors don’t really have to be high-powered scientists,” Mr. Rike said, “they just need to understand the practical side of the engineering, not the technical side.

The state will have competition in hiring the though. The same folks who make good inspectors often are the same ones that make good employees for oil and gas drillers. ODNR is probably already facing that challenge to some degree.

“With the appearance of some of the larger oil companies, there’s certainly more competition for these applicants,” Ms. Evans said.

Get used to that warns Mr. Rike – and then be prepared to have inspectors hired away by those same energy companies.

Tagged with: ohio, inspections, fracking, enforcement

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