Report dismisses claim that BLM is hampering drilling rule enforcement

QUICKREAD

By the numbers:

• With an annual budget of $40 million, the Bureau of Land Management’s Oil and Gas Inspection and Enforcement Program oversees about 112,000 oil and gas wells.

• During fiscal 2009, the BLM reported completion of 16,680 inspections resulting in issuance of 6,403 enforcement actions. The agency collected $129,000 in monetary assessments and $130,000 in civil penalties.

Source: Interior Department Office of Inspector General report



An Interior Department investigation has found little substance to allegations that some Bureau of Land Management supervisors discourage oil and gas inspectors from taking enforcement actions against companies.

However, the department’s office of inspector general found numerous areas where the enforcement program can be improved, according to a report it issued this month.

“We found many opportunities for improvement in the inspection strategy, the performance of inspections, enforcement actions, training and retention of inspectors, and the reliability of the program’s electronic database,” acting Inspector General Mary Kendall said in a report cover letter.

The report also raised concern about the BLM’s “history of not completing its required number of production inspections,” and it said field offices “having significant increases in drilling permit applications do not complete all critical environmental inspections, thus jeopardizing compliance with environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”

The report said, “The increased emphasis on finding and developing new oil and gas resources on public lands makes environmental protection imperative.”

The allegations about the supervisors prompted the investigation. However, investigators determined that most inspectors believe supervisors support their enforcement actions against companies, such as issuance of incidents of noncompliance, or INCs.

Ten percent requested more supervisory support.

“Nevertheless, we found no evidence of inadequate supervisory or management support that diminished the overall effectiveness of the (Inspection and Enforcement) Program. We did find that INCs were inconsistently applied, followed up, and resolved,” the report said.

The evaluation included an online survey in which 421 out of about 600 targeted employees participated. In addition, investigators interviewed about 100 employees at 13 BLM offices, including those in Garfield County, Grand Junction, Meeker and Durango.

Some of the report’s other recommendations were to raise fines and penalties now considered too low to “deter noncompliance,” and to establish criteria and eligibility requirements for more industry self-inspections.

It said database issues make it impossible for the BLM to completely verify which wells have been inspected.

The BLM must provide a written response around the end of the year. Its Washington office had no immediate public comment Friday. The agency has said inspections in Colorado have been increasing rapidly.

Kathleen Sgamma, with the Western Energy Alliance industry group, said in a prepared statement, “Many of the recommendations seem reasonable, such as better information systems with more accurate data and improved inspection staff training. The vast majority of operators are always striving to improve safety and environmental protection, and are more than willing to work with BLM to improve processes and compliance. Onshore oil and natural gas development on federal lands continues to have an exemplary safety and environmental record.”

Representatives of the Western Organization of Resource Councils, which in the past has said inspection levels remain inadequate despite program improvements, said Friday they had yet to read the new report.


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