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New data shows government oversight of oil and gas spills is spotty at best

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Sarah Jane Keller | Jul 24, 2013 05:00 AM

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently walked back its massive investigation of water contamination from natural gas drilling in Pavillion, Wyoming, John Hanger, a Democratic candidate for governor in Pennsylvania and the former secretary of the state's Department of Environmental Protection, wrote on his blog: "The EPA has just put a ‘kick me' sign on it. Its critics from all quarters will now oblige."

Hanger’s statement was part of a recent ProPublica story run by High Country News detailing how pulling the plug on Pavillion is part of a larger, perhaps systematic, EPA retreat from questioning the health, safety and environmental risks of fracking and oil drilling. Now, an energy news site has released a report that drills into state and federal data on oil and gas spills, blowouts, and other mishaps from 2009 to 2012. EnergyWire’s investigation provides a comprehensive picture of what it means to have little standardized oversight of accidents in the industry, which is becoming central to the White House’s climate strategy.

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Cleanup of the 2010 Enbridge pipeline spill in Mich. (U.S. Coast Guard)

EnergyWire’s investigation brings to light a spike in accidents since 2010 and a paucity of fines for mistakes. The report shows how the lack of national documentation on oil and gas spills, and a lack of enforcement, makes it difficult to track the consequences of the drilling boom in recent years.

The data they did dig up in 12 states shows that spills increased 17 percent between 2010 and 2012, a time when drilling activity in those states jumped by 40 percent. Adding up the spills showed that just in 2012, there was more oil, fracking fluid and wastewater spilled from production sites than what spewed from the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989—at least 15.6 million gallons in total. That doesn’t even include interstate pipeline or offshore spills, and EnergyWire says it’s probably an undercount because reports from Colorado, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania often omit the amount spilled.

EnergyWire noted that aside from Bureau of Land Management records on public lands spills, accident and enforcement data are spread across the country under the stewardship of state agencies, in a combination of digitized databases and old fashioned file drawers.

North Dakota had the most spills last year, but reporting requirements that vary from state to state make it hard to make comparisons, and truly know where the most accidents happen. “In North Dakota, they have to report any spill of more than 1 barrel (42 gallons). In Texas, the threshold is five barrels. And in Oklahoma and Montana, it's 10 barrels,” EnergyWire reported.

Enforcement is equally difficult to track, and EnergyWire found that “it's actually rare for state oil and gas regulators to hit companies with fines after spills and blowouts.” New Mexico regulators haven’t fined violators since a judge ruled in 2009 that the state Oil Conservation Division didn’t have the authority to do so. In Wyoming, there were 204 spills recorded during 2012, and the state environmental quality department slapped just 10 producers with water quality fines. In Texas, drilling inspectors found 55,000 violations and tried to enforce 2 percent of them in the last fiscal year.

Last winter, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, related his experience of gulping down fracking fluid as he addressed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, saying that the states, not the feds, should be taking the lead on regulating oil and gas production. His state adopted rules this year that require drill rigs to be at least 500 feet away from homes, schools and hospitals, and groundwater testing.

With natural gas occupying “a hallowed place in this administration's climate strategy,” as Judith Lewis Mernit recently wrote in her HCN story about Obama’s climate speech, there may not be much debate on who should oversee drillers anyway. The EPA is already drawing significant fire from House Republicans for regulating greenhouse gases from power plants, and it’s hard to imagine that fight will leave much political will, at least in the near future, for thorough federal oversight of favored bridge fuels.

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News editorial fellow.

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