Group: BLM under-inspects oil and gas wells

Kahrin Deines
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

HELENA, Mont. ” An environmental group has released a report finding U.S. Bureau of Land Management environmental inspections have not kept pace with oil and natural gas development in five energy-rich Western states.

The report released by the Western Organization of Resource Councils on Thursday follows up on a similar 2004 study done in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, New Mexico and Colorado.

While the study found the agency has improved, council member Peggy Utesch said its inspections of oil and natural gas wells is “still woefully underfunded and inadequate.”

BLM is charged with regulating and leasing oil and natural gas that is owned by the federal government.

The report, which draws on statistics from six field offices in the five states, found that in 2007 the agency completed only 15 percent of required environmental inspections that its own standards define as high priority. Back in 2004, inspectors at those field offices completed about 14 percent of the high priority inspections.

“These changes constitute little more than a baby step from abysmally low base line levels measured three years ago,” said Bob LeResche of Wyoming’s Powder River Basin Council, one of seven environmental groups comprising the council.

Inspection priority levels are set nationally and depend on a number of factors, including whether a well is located in an environmentally sensitive location, an operator’s history of compliance, and the well’s stage of development.

A BLM spokesman for Montana and the Dakotas, Greg Albright, said the agency does a good job, and he’s not sure how the inspection numbers were interpreted to produce the report’s findings.

“We’ve not been able to duplicate the numbers,” Albright said. “I don’t know how what was added where to do what.”

BLM headquarters in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.

According to Albright, oil and gas well leasing on federal lands has fluctuated along with industry demand since 2000, with permitting applications hitting a peak for the three-state region of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota in 2005. A record $36 million in lease sales were also registered for those states in fiscal 2005, with North Dakota pulling in the lion’s share.

That same year the Government Accountability Office reported that increasing demand for drilling permits was undermining the national agency’s ability to meet environmental guidelines.

The report released Thursday finds BLM has made some improvements since then: the number of environmental inspection duties have been increased, more training is available for inspectors, and the number of inspections completed surged by 86 percent in fiscal year 2007.

But the report’s authors point out that nationally the agency’s environmental inspectors still spent 35 percent less time on environmental inspections in fiscal 2008 than in 1999. Enforcement actions have also declined relative to the number of wells. And though the number of staff with some environmental duties has doubled, the agency spent only 50 percent more time on such inspections in fiscal 2008 than in 1999.

“Part of the reason they’re not meeting the requirements is because they’re actually increasing the number of high priority inspections, but we still think they should be able to meet their standards,” said Sarah Kendall, the report’s main author.

The BLM field offices used as case studies are in Miles City, Mont., Grand Junction, Colo., Farmington, N.M., Dickinson, N.D., Buffalo, Wyo., and Pinedale, Wyo.

The groups in the council are Dakota Rural Action, Dakota Resource Council, Idaho Rural Council, Oregon Rural Action, Powder River Basin Resource Council in Wyoming, Western Colorado Congress and the Northern Plains Resource Council in Montana.

The report comes as the Obama administration has asked Congress to provide BLM with more funding to do its work by increasing fees on oil and gas production permits ” a change the environmental groups say they would welcome.

“I’m concerned about how well my land and family will be protected,” said Jeanie Alderson, a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council from Birney, Mont. who also has land where the mineral estate is owned, and may be leased out, by the federal government.


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