Sustained Outrage

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Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

West Virginia is among the states featured in the latest ProPublica report on oil and gas drilling regulation, State Oil and Gas Regulators are Spread Too Thin to Do Their Jobs. The story starts out:

Larry Parrish knew something was wrong as soon as he wheeled his state-owned pickup off the West Virginia highway and onto the rocky field where the natural gas well was supposed to be. Oak trees 18 inches in diameter looked dead as boards, and brush as brown as kindling stretched across a piece of farmland the size of a football field.

The dead zone in this otherwise lush mountain country meant one thing to Parrish: Gas drillers had been illegally dumping briny water mixed with chemicals, and the waste had killed everything from the rusty well head all the way downhill into a creek. The worst part, Parrish said, was that the devastation could have been avoided if the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had had enough inspectors to make sure the state’s growing number of gas wells were checked regularly.

“It was sad — sickening,” said Parrish, a former field inspector for the DEP’s office of oil and gas. “It probably had been years since anybody had been out there.”

West Virginia has added a handful of people to oversee its growing drilling industry since Parrish retired in 2006, but other than that not much has changed. For the state’s 17 inspectors to visit West Virginia’s 55,222 wells once a year, they would have to inspect nine wells a day, every day of the year — no weekends, no vacations.

“We are doing what we can do,” said Gene Smith, a regulatory compliance manager for West Virginia. “But that still leaves thousands of wells that are not inspected yearly or even every decade.”

The piece concludes:

Regulators in other states are equally overwhelmed as they try to keep tabs on the nation’s nearly one million active oil and gas wells, a number that’s likely to climb as the feverish growth in natural gas exploration continues.

A ProPublica investigation comparing the rapid expansion of drilling in 22 states with staffing levels at the agencies charged with policing the wells found that the nation’s capacity to enforce its environmental protections is weakening. The picture strikes at the heart of the industry’s long-standing argument that state regulatory agencies will be more effective industry watchdogs than the federal government.

While the number of new oil and gas wells being drilled in the 22 states each year has jumped 45 percent since 2004, most of the states have added only a few regulators. Those with the widest gaps are Texas, which is already grappling with the most drilling, and New York, which is expected to soon have the fastest rate of growth.

You can see the West Virginia-specific data by clicking here, but this is the bottom line:

— Enforcement staff increased from 20 in 2003 to 24 last year.

— Enforcement actions are up just slightly if you compare 2003 to 2009. But if you look at the years in between, the number of WVDEP enforcement actions was way, way down, about half of last year’s total.

— Interestingly, the number of new wells drilled plummeted last year, to 767 from a high more more than 2,500 to years earlier in 2007.

Sustained Outrage has been covering a number of oil and gas issues in West Virginia, from the WVDEP’s proposed new rules to the drilling controversy in Chief Logan State Park.  And the West Virginia Environmental Council has dealing with drilling issues on its agenda for the 2010 legislative session that starts next week:

WVEC will also support comprehensive legislation to address the multitude of new environmental issues surrounding the drilling of Marcellus Shale natural gas wells. The increase in drilling in recent years has revealed serious deficiencies with the regulation of normal oil and gas well drilling in West Virginia. The drilling of wells to the Marcellus Shale formation takes these existing problems to a new level. Marcellus wells use huge amounts of water to drill and “fracture” the gas formation, and in turn produce huge amounts of wastewater to dispose. DEP’s Office of Oil and Gas has proposed some rule changes that would require the use of synthetic liners in drilling pits and establish construction standards for waste pits and water storage impoundments. But these rule changes do not go far enough. WVEC will support additional changes in the rule and additional legislation that will address: water withdrawal from rivers and streams, the content of “frac” fluids, and the disposal of wastewater.