NEW CASTLE, Colo. – Four in 10 new oil and gas wells near national forests and fragile watersheds or otherwise identified as higher pollution risks escape federal inspection, unchecked by an agency struggling to keep pace with America’s drilling boom, according to an Associated Press review that shows wide state-by-state disparities in safety checks.
Roughly half or more of wells on federal and Indian lands weren’t checked in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, despite potential harm that has led to efforts in some communities to ban new drilling.
Government data obtained by the AP points to the Bureau of Land Management as so overwhelmed by a boom in a new drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that it has been unable to keep up with inspections of some of the highest priority wells.
The agency oversees 100,000 oil and gas wells on public lands, 3,486 of which received the high priority designation.
According to BLM records for fiscal years 2009 to 2012, 1,400 of those high priority wells, spread across 13 states, were not federally inspected. Wyoming had the most, 632, or 45 percent. South Dakota had one out of two wells uninspected, and Pennsylvania had one out of six.
All the higher risk wells were inspected in six states – Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, New York, Ohio and Texas.
Many more wells are located on private lands, where state officials take the lead in ensuring they comply with environmental laws, with mixed results. Nationwide, there were nearly 500,000 producing gas wells in 2012, according to Energy Information Administration data. More than 1,800 new wells were being drilled in March alone.
Officials noted that money provided by Congress for oil and gas operations has declined since 2007. During that period, the number of wells drilled on federal and Indian lands has increased by roughly one-third.