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Utah ‘high risk’ oil wells among those left uninspected
Regulation » BLM cites funding, staffing shortages for failure to ensure compliance.
First Published Jun 15 2014 09:28 am • Last Updated Jun 15 2014 02:21 pm

A majority of the oil and gas wells drilled on federal land in Utah during recent boom years have not been inspected, according to data obtained by The Associated Press.

Of even more concern: Two-thirds of the wells the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) identified as high priority — because their locations pose greater risks — have not been examined.

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The Utah data cover the 2,432 oil and gas wells drilled between 2009 and 2012 on Utah lands administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Less than 20 percent of these were inspected.

Of the 327 high-priority wells, which BLM rules say should be inspected while they are being drilled, only 108 were visited by inspectors.

Some of the high-priority wells may have been downgraded as oil fields developed without problems. BLM officials said, but they concede some fall through the cracks because of budgetary constraints and the difficulty of retaining qualified inspectors.

BLM’s Vernal office, the nation’s busiest for energy development, sees half of its petroleum engineering technicians turn over every year, lured away by the much higher salaries offered by the industry, according to Kent Hoffman, the BLM’s deputy state director over minerals.

Currently, all 17 of the office’s positions for these key compliance officials are filled. But "this is the first time since 2006. We would usually have had three, four, five vacancies," Hoffman said.

The starting annual salary for these jobs runs up to $35,000, but by the time inspectors are certified they are worth double or triple that pay to industry.

BLM officials say they want to increase the compliance staff, but funding is not available and Congress won’t give the agency authority to raise drilling permit fees to pay for inspections.

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Skipped inspections » Former BLM staffers say the inspection data indicate the agency has emphasized issuing permits for drilling applications at the expense of environmental safety.

"There is a rush to approve unprecedented levels of oil and gas drilling on public lands and there’s clearly very lax oversight," said Daniel Patterson, now the Southwest regional director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "The rhetoric of responsible energy development doesn’t match the reality. Talk is cheap. It doesn’t inspire confidence."

The data were compiled by the AP from the Automated Fluid Minerals Support System, the central database that the BLM uses to track oil and gas information.

The majority of Utah’s uninspected wells are in the Uinta Basin, overseen by the Vernal field office. There are two clusters of about 20 wells each north of the White River and west of Bonanza on oil fields operated by EOG Resources.

Other operators with many uninspected wells are Bill Barrett Corp. and Newfield Exploration Co., Utah’s two busiest energy developers.

The inspections confirm operators’ compliance with the terms of their drilling permits and check the integrity of the bore hole and cement casings.

"They should be inspected sooner. If they don’t have the resources to do inspections then go out and hire more inspectors," Patterson said. "There’s is certainly a lot of money being made. We don’t know if there might be a problem with installation. The agencies have a responsibility to permit levels of drilling that they can monitor."

Hoffman said he agrees. "Inspection and enforcement is a top critical priority," he said.

Setting priorities » The BLM identifies priority wells according to geological hazards, the potential for blowouts, design deficiencies, the rig operators’ experience and track record, and proximity to valuable surface resources, such as rivers and parks.

High-priority wells should all be inspected, while the agency aims to inspect as many low priority wells as possible — about one in five.

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