Spotty enforcement in the gas patch


Multiple choice question:

Last year, Colorado collected $1.2 million, Wyoming $15,500, California $13,123 and New Mexico $0, for fines associated with what activity?

A. Poaching of big game animals

B. Misleading labeling of food items

C. Oil and gas drilling

D. Late returns of library books

If you picked C, you're correct, according to a new special report from Environment and Energy Daily, Ground Rules (subscription required). The report provides details about violations, enforcement actions and fines for oil and gas drilling in the 12 biggest drilling states, including the 4 Western states mentioned above.

Unless you've been in solitary confinement for the last five years, it probably won't surprise you to learn that most of the time, the agencies and inspectors overseeing the drilling boom aren't exactly acting as vigilant watchdogs. From the report:

Many other states don't track violations, enforcement and the number of penalties assessed against oil and gas producers. To find such information, state employees would have to go back through individual files, as Texas Railroad Commission staff did for the Sunset review (from a state advisory commission). Among those states are Wyoming, North Dakota and New Mexico.

Without that kind of information, the Sunset report said, regulators "cannot determine or ensure effective and consistent enforcement across the state."

The report also discusses the weak oversight of hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, a process in which drillers mix various chemicals with water and sand and inject it underground to release gas deposits:

Obama's fracking panel, formally a subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, has given mixed reviews of state regulation. It delivered an interim report in August that said the effectiveness of current regulations "is far from clear" and added, "Absent effective control, public opposition will grow, thus putting continued production at risk."

The threat hydrofracking poses to groundwater has gotten a lot of media attention this year, as drilling expands in the more populated Eastern states. This summer, we ran a story (jointly with ProPublica) about a man in Pavillion, Wyoming, whose drinking water was apparently polluted by nearby fracking operations.

So far, federal agencies and state governments have largely declined to regulate fracking (apart from a few exceptions like Wyoming), although there are signs of a shift toward stronger oversight of the process and of the industry as a whole.  The EPA recently proposed new air quality rules for gas fields. A Department of Energy panel just issued a report calling for more regulation of fracking.  ProPublica reports:

“Concerted and sustained action is needed to avoid excessive environmental impacts of shale gas production and the consequent risk of public opposition to its continuation and expansion,” said members of the Energy Department’s Shale Gas Subcommittee in a draft report released today.

The report calls on the EPA to revise a proposed rule on air emissions to include limits on methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and criticizes recent moves by the agency that have hindered efforts to get better data from the oil and gas industry, a crucial step toward improving controls.

The report also concludes that joint federal and state efforts to ensure water quality are “not working smoothly” and urges the EPA to move unilaterally to improve oversight as it carries out a study on potential effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water.

Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.

Image of library books courtesy Flickr user Christy Sheffield.

Image of gas rig in Colorado courtesy Flickr user John Giez.

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