State Oil and Gas Regulators Are Spread Too Thin

[imgbelt img=Txwell.jpg]There was a 42% increase in the number of oil and gas wells from 2004 to 2008 in 22 of the largest energy producing states. The number of environmental regulators rose only 9%, however. So who’s there to see that the drilling is done properly?


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A ProPublica investigation comparing the rapid expansion of drilling in 22 states with staffing levels at the agencies charged with policing the wells found that the nation’s capacity to enforce its environmental protections is weakening. The discrepancy strikes at the heart of the industry’s long-standing argument that state regulatory agencies will be more effective industry watchdogs than the federal government.

While the number of new oil and gas wells being drilled in the 22 states each year has jumped 45 percent since 2004, most of the states have added only a few regulators. Those with the widest gaps are Texas, which is already grappling with the most drilling, and New York, which is expected to soon have the fastest rate of growth.

As regulators’ workloads have grown, enforcement actions — the number of times violations were recorded and acted on — have dropped in many states, often by more than half. That could mean companies are complying with the law — or that inspectors aren’t checking the wells.

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“You just can’t do it, physically,” said Parrish, who received a $31,000 salary and said he was chronically overworked. “You’ve got to put out the hottest fires and there was a lot of stuff that slipped through the cracks because no one was looking.”

The imbalance between drilling growth and regulatory staffing levels could become a crucial factor as lawmakers and the public weigh how much environmental damage to expect in exchange for the benefits brought by the drilling boom. Thanks in large part to advances in drilling technology, estimates for the amount of natural gas held underneath parts of the United States have increased by 35 percent since 2007 and are now believed to be plentiful enough to meet the nation’s needs for more than 100 years. As a result, drilling is expanding rapidly, including in the Marcellus Shale, the layer of rock that stretches from central New York, underneath West Virginia to Tennessee.

The boom, however, has brought complaints of water and air pollution. Modern gas drilling in particular has drawn scrutiny because it relies on hydraulic fracturing, a process that injects millions of gallons of chemically infused water underground and produces large volumes of waste. The industry has fended off efforts to establish stricter regulations in part with its argument that the current state oversight is effective.

What it takes to enforce regulations, and whether authorities have enough resources to get the job done, are questions that rarely enter the debate.

“Not having eyeballs on the ground is horrendous,” said Jim Baca, who served during the Clinton administration as director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that oversees more than 85,000 oil and gas wells on federal land. “If you don’t enforce the law, the industry will do whatever they think they can get away with.”

Spokesmen for state and federal regulatory agencies defend their effectiveness and caution that the picture is more nuanced than mathematical equations can convey. They say that they are working to improve efficiency in their departments and that the number of inspectors alone doesn’t always reflect enforcement because staffers can be shifted to meet urgent priorities. Employees might have capacity in their workload to absorb much of the growth in drilling that is taking place, they say.

“They may have to work a little harder,” said Stuart Gruskin, New York’s executive deputy commissioner for environmental conservation, about staffing in his state. “It’s like any other business. You can adjust from a management perspective how you utilize your resources until you reach the point where you are not doing a good enough job.”

The New York State public employees union disagrees. “Attempting to have them do even more with less is not possible,” it said this week in a statement calling for delaying the expansion of drilling for at least a year because of, among other things, what it called understaffing at the Department of Environmental Conservation and other state agencies.

The Lone Star Record

No state has more drilling than Texas, which has 273,660 wells and just 106 regulators to oversee them.

As in most states, regulators for the Railroad Commission of Texas, the agency that is charged with oil and gas regulation, are kept busy by a broad range of responsibilities. They police gas wells, oil wells, waste injection wells, disposal pits, compressor stations and access roads. The wells can be spread across hundreds of miles, sometimes peppered throughout difficult-to-access terrain, with limited cell phone or computer access, heavy rains and rough roads requiring four-wheel drive.

Regulators also approve new permits — and try to do it fast enough to not saddle the companies applying for them with extra costs. They visit new wells several times during construction and old wells before they are shut in, or sealed. They are obligated to quickly respond to all complaints, which can range from an unauthorized flaring of emissions or gases to a spill of hazardous fluids.

Eighty-three of Texas’ regulatory staffers conduct field inspections, according to the commission, meaning each person is responsible for almost 3,300 wells, many of them requiring several visits in a year.

As in West Virginia, keeping up with the workload is nearly impossible.

“It’s one of the worst-kept secrets around the state that the wells that are ostensibly checked once a year aren’t,” said Jeff Weems, a Houston attorney who specializes in the energy industry and is running for the top job at the Texas Railroad Commission. “They could double the number of inspectors and still be straining their staff to do their job.”

In late 2007, a Texas state auditor’s report examined the Railroad Commission’s enforcement record and found that nearly half of the state’s wells hadn’t been inspected in the five years between 2001 and 2006, when the data was collected. (It also said regulators’ routine acceptance of gifts from the companies they police raised questions about their objectivity and conflicts of interest, and the commission imposed a $50 limit on gifts as a result.)

In Texas, as in most states, regulators prioritize their work to make sure the most essential inspections get done. Complaints and spills top the list, along with new well construction.

But the Texas auditor’s report found that 30 percent of all spills were inspected “either late or not at all.”

“It is quite clear to management that inspecting 100 percent of these notices … is not possible with current resources,” the Railroad Commission wrote in its response to the audit. “To the extent resources become available in future legislative sessions, the Commission could witness more activities.”

A spokeswoman for the commission said its workload decreased when drilling activity slowed in 2008, so the staffing situation has improved. She said the agency conducted 128,270 inspections in 2009, and visits every site it deems essential.

“Texas has maintained and will continue to maintain a strong enforcement effort for our environmental rules, regulations and policies,” the spokeswoman, Stacie Fowler, said in an e-mail.

But the commission’s Web site also makes clear that facilitating energy production is a priority and the state won’t slow drilling while inspections catch up. It advertises the current waiting period for approval of new drilling permits: three days.

According to ProPublica’s analysis, the number of new wells drilled each year in Texas has jumped 75 percent since 2003. However, staffing increased just 5 percent during that period and enforcement actions increased only 6 percent.

Records show that the Railroad Commission’s budget for monitoring and inspections has decreased 10 percent since 2005. Fowler said the agency had requested more staffing from the state legislature at least three times in the last five years and been turned down every time.

ProPublica. ProPublica reporter Sabrina Shankman contributed to this report. So did ProPublica’s director of research Lisa Schwartz and researcher Kitty Bennett.