Journalism in the Public Interest

Update: State Oil and Gas Regulators Still Spread Thin

ProPublica updates its database of regulatory oversight in oil and gas producing states, adding data on agency budgets and wells used to inject waste.

(Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica)

The U.S. relies on state and federal 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.

imo, this is typical of the USA and how they regulate ‘utilities’. the corps. r able to cut costs, etc. by having less ‘inspectors’ for their infrastructure. and many utilities farm out inspections to co. that pay low wages to inspect.
living in an area w new fracking, i DO kno that the pipelines at least are somewhat inspected or will b as they built, but as mentioned. low pay for the job for the importance of the task, $12hr. if the workers are lucky enuf to get that.
that’s our present day capitalism.

We THe People MUST make the effort to be active, “informed citizens”. The lawmakers have no incentive to fund regulating agencies unless WE TELL THEM in no uncertain term.
We’re fighting Tar Sands Oil here in the Northeast and we can’t get reliable data on volumes of transported oils, spill incidents and chemical diluents used to make TSO pumpable. Reporting requirements are changed at the will of the companies!

We have GOT to do a better job of keeping in direct contact with our state and fed officials -or we have NO grounds to complain.

Industry and the Republicans always rail against regulation, deeming it unnecessary, since the industry regulates itself - supposedly. Yet, on a daily basis, we read about the circumvention of sound practices and failure to report accidents and leakages. Not surprising. Every bit of regulation tends to impact the savings from shortcuts and money saving practices that are used, because the objective is always money and profit.
  This objection to regulation extends from drilling and fracking to banking. Yet the major problems that have come up are always the result of inadequate self-regulation. The honor system does not work when money is involved - anywhere.

It gets worse, gunste.  Even when they do regulate, look who Washington hires as regulators!  They’re almost always industry people, who eventually finish out their terms to go on to high positions in the industry they were allegedly fighting.

It’s a safe bet that we’d find the budget for more inspectors if the people making the decisions weren’t planning for big paychecks from the worst offenders.

It reminds me of the sixties when the Black Panthers started following police cars around, carrying shotguns, in order to monitor them.

“Policing the police,” they called it.

If we’re going to preserve the water for the next couple of generations it’s going to take a massive public effort to “regulate the regulators.”

Three cheers for Pro Publica!

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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