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New report: BLM using outdated rules and not inspecting priority wells

Amy Mall

Posted June 13, 2014

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The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in May on BLM's oversight of oil and gas development on federal and Indian lands. Among the GAO's findings:

  • Annual production of oil and gas from federal and Indian leases of sandstone and shale formations increased more than five times from 2007 to 2012.
  • BLM rules and guidance have not been updated to reflect technological advances such as fracking and horizontal drilling (and, as I mentioned in a recent blog post, BLM has been approving new oil and gas development without the necessary environmental review of these new technologies).
  • BLM is not inspecting all high priority wells. GAO found that BLM had not inspected more than 2,100 of 3,702 wells, or 57%.
  • Not all BLM field offices have comprehensive and reliable data on wells, including the location of the oil and gas resources, the location of wellbores, and the status of wells. One office reported that wells are extracting Indian resources without prior approval, and tribes are losing revenue.
  • Budget and staffing constraints limit the agency's ability to inspect wells, collect and review data, and ensure adequate information about wells and royalties.

The Associated Press analyzed the data regarding the "high priority" wells--an "agency designation based on a greater need to protect against possible water contamination and other environmental and safety issues." AP found these wells were in 13 states. Wyoming had the most, and 'Roughly half or more of wells on federal and Indian lands weren't checked in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming." AP reports that the GAO numbers had some duplicate well entries that yielded an overcount of priority wells and the number of wells that went uninspected (AP found 1,400, or 40% of  3,486 high priority wells went uninspected. It's still a number that is too high).

The AP article reports on the fact that the Bush administration made oil and gas development the top priority for BLM offices. BLM shifted resources from wildlife biology and other important needs to helping the industry frack more on public lands. One former BLM employee states: ""It's a disaster waiting to happen."

We agree. BLM has asked Congress for the ability to charge companies fees for inspections -- which is already allowed for offshore. Congress should authorize these fees. BLM says that these fees will "help BLM fully implement a risk-based inspection strategy to improve production accountability, safety, and environmental protection of oil and gas operations." BLM has also asked for a budget increase to support writing new rules and overseeing regional offices.That also make sense.

And BLM has asked for more money to do the work needed to process new permits. NRDC has called for a moratorium on fracking on public lands, because the BLM does not have rules, inspection capacity, or enforcement policies in place that are strong enough to protect communities, drinking water sources, wildlife habitat, and important natural resources from the risks of fracking. Until BLM has the best possible protections in place, can inspect existing wells, and ensures clean-up of all damage from current development, it shouldn't be allowing new fracking on public lands. 

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