Update: State Gas and Oil Regulators Still Spread Thin
by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica
The U.S. relies on state and federal gas and oil regulators to make sure that oil and gas drilling is done safely, and that trillions of gallons of toxic waste injected into underground disposal wells do not contaminate water supplies.
Today, ProPublica is updating its database on oversight of production and waste wells, adding records for 2010 and 2011 — the most recent year available for many states — to data from 2003 to 2009. We’ve added information about agencies’ budgets, as well as the total number of injection wells they are responsible for overseeing.
The data shows some states have hired more inspectors or otherwise increased their enforcement capacity. Still, the ratio of wells to inspectors remains extremely high, and the volume of waste being pumped underground has ballooned, driven in large part to the boom in drilling made possible by fracking.
Over a five-year span, ProPublica has investigated the risks from fracking and the expanding system of underground injection wells, often finding that regulatory agencies have fallen short in enforcing critical environmental protections.
In 2009, we found that the state oil and gas agencies charged with overseeing fracking and the drilling of natural gas were often woefully understaffed, just as the largest drilling boom in the recent history was ramping up.
In 2012, we investigated how the same agencies and the federal government were monitoring roughly 700,000 underground disposal wells in the U.S., of which more than 150,000 are used for waste from oil and gas drilling.
Our examination of records summarizing more than 220,000 well inspections conducted between late 2007 and late 2010 showed that fundamental safeguards are sometimes ignored or circumvented. We found records showing that more than 7,000 wells had leaked, and that more than 17,000 wells had failed structural tests.
Because of a lack of regulatory resources, our reporting showed, disposal wells often don’t get the oversight that they need.
According to our September report:
“State and federal regulators often do little to confirm what pollutants go into wells for drilling waste. They rely heavily on an honor system in which companies are supposed to report what they are pumping into the earth, whether their wells are structurally sound, and whether they have violated any rules.
More than 1,000 times in the three-year period examined, operators pumped waste into Class 2 wells at pressure levels they knew could fracture rock and lead to leaks. In at least 140 cases, companies injected waste illegally or without a permit.
In several instances, records show, operators did not meet requirements to identify old or abandoned wells near injection sites until waste flooded back up to the surface, or found ways to cheat on tests meant to make sure wells aren’t leaking.”