Report questions adequacy of oil, gas inspections

Growth in active oil and gas wells is mostly outpacing the increases in the number of state inspectors in Colorado and four nearby states, a new analysis by the Western Organization of Resource Councils has found.

That same report found that the Bureau of Land Management generally boosted its ratio of inspectors to wells from 2007-10 before the ratio dropped again.

However, it found that four states — Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and New Mexico — didn’t have enough inspectors to inspect all active wells at least once a year. Neither does the BLM, although North Dakota does, states the report by WORC, a network of citizens groups including the Western Colorado Congress.

The study found that on average in 2011, each Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission inspector was responsible for more than 5,200 active wells, compared to about 3,400 wells two years earlier.

On average, Colorado inspectors conducted more than 1,300 inspections in 2011, the report said. At that rate, a well typically would be inspected about once every four years, it said.

In the BLM’s Silt-based Colorado River Valley Field office, the average inspections per full-time-equivalent inspector topped 3,000 per year in fiscal years 2010-11.

“The ratios documented raise questions about the thoroughness and usefulness of these inspections,” the report states.

In a news release, the WCC and WORC pointed to the study results in citing leeriness over the BLM’s proposed leasing of 20,000 acres for oil and gas development in the North Fork Valley.

“If BLM leases the North Fork, they must provide for more inspections and penalties to deter violations and protect our clean air, clean water, and public health,” North Fork Valley resident Gretchen Nicholoff said in the release.

BLM spokesman Steven Hall said that in Colorado, the agency has “an exemplary track record of successfully managing energy development while protecting the environment. In the North Fork Valley, for example, more than 40 wells have been drilled in the past decade at a time when organic farming and real estate values have thrived.”

He added, “Given that inspections are most useful during the actual drilling and initial production of federal wells, simply visiting a well every year may not be the best use of public resources.”

Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said that the “vast majority of active wells are sites where the heavy and industrial work of drilling and completing is finished, and the resulting well and related facilities comprise a far smaller and less active operation.”

He said the COGCC has more than doubled its staff since 2004 and has 16 full-time field inspectors along with 20 environmental and engineering specialists who often are in the field.

“Emerging from a deep recession, the COGCC has been one of very few agencies within state government that has actually expanded, adding seven (full-time equivalents) last year, with a request for an additional five staff, including inspectors and others with field responsibilities, before the Legislature this year,” he said.


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