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In northwest North Dakota, the placement of oil wells close to some of North America’s best duck breeding habitat worries wildlife officials.

Dennis Anderson • Star Tribune file,

U.S. oil and gas wells going uninspected state to state

  • Article by: HOPE YEN and THOMAS PEIPERT
  • Associated Press
  • June 15, 2014 - 9:23 PM

 

– 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.

In New Castle, a tiny Colorado River valley community, homeowners expressed chagrin at the large number of uninspected wells, many on federal land, that dot the steep hillsides and rocky landscape. Like elsewhere in the West, water is a precious commodity in this Colorado town, and some residents worry about the potential health hazards of any leaks from wells and drilling.

“Nobody wants to live by an oil rig. We surely didn’t want to,” said Joann Jaramillo, 54.

About 250 yards up the hill from Jaramillo’s home, on land that was a dormant gravel pit when she bought the house eight years ago, is an active drilling operation Jaramillo said the drilling began about three years ago.

Even if the wells were inspected, she questioned whether that would ensure their safety. She said many view the oil and gas industry as self-policing and nontransparent.

Government data point to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) 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. “High priority” is an agency designation based on a greater need to protect against water contamination and other environmental and safety issues.

Factors also include whether the well is near a high-pressure geologic formation or whether the drill operator lacks a clear track record of service.

“No one would have predicted the incredible boom of drilling on federal lands, and the number of wells we’ve been asked to process,” said the BLM’s deputy director, Linda Lance. Since fracking reached a height in 2009, about 90 percent of new wells on federal land are drilled by the process, which involves pumping huge volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground.

The agency oversees 100,000 oil and gas wells on public lands, 3,486 of which are designated as high priority.

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 1 out of 2 wells uninspected, and Pennsylvania had 1 out of 6.

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 compliance 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.

Dennis Willis, a former BLM field officer in Price, Utah, says he routinely provided input on oil leasing and drilling decisions on federal land before his retirement in 2009. He described a situation of chronic underfunding dating to at least the early 2000s, when BLM management made clear that issuing new permits would be a priority over other tasks, according to a 2002 memorandum from supervisors in Utah to field officers. At the time, fracking was becoming more widely used.

“There certainly wasn’t a shortage of spills, leaks, pipeline failures and other problems,” said Willis, who now does consulting work for conservation and other groups.

“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.

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