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"It’s an unfortunate necessity we have to strategize in that way due to resource issues," BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said.
The AP data mirror conclusions reached by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in numerous reviews over the past decade that found oversight is lacking. The slow pace of inspections has coincided with an influx of parcels nominated for oil and gas leases and drilling permit applications from industry, thanks to technological advances that have made more oil and gas deposits accessible.
Utah field offices approved 965 drilling permits last year, a record number, on top of the 848 approved the year before. And the number of producing federal leases is near an all-time high, at 1,473 leases on 1.1 million Utah acres involving 8,459 wells, according to BLM statistics.
Federal lands in Utah have never before seen this level of oil and gas activity, yet industry often complains that BLM is too slow to lease and process drilling applications.
Critics, however, say the BLM should be given the resources it needs to provide adequate oversight before approving more development. Industry, meanwhile, is sitting on nearly 1,800 approved but unused drilling permits in Utah, while the BLM is working through a backlog of 1,500 applications.
Stan Olmstead, a former staffer in the BLM’s Vernal office, said the agency’s approach is "backward."
It believes "permits are most important, leasing is next, compliance third, and reclamation fourth," Olmstead said. "Reclamation should be first. All wells no longer in production should be dealt with. Permitting should be the last thing you do, but it’s where the money is."
It would free up resources if the BLM would require companies to properly retire their old non-producing wells, which still require the attention of inspectors, before awarding them new permits, Olmstead suggested.
He provided The Salt Lake Tribune a list of 355 Utah wells that had been idle for 10 or more years as of 2012, but have yet to be plugged and reclaimed.
Failing to keep up » A May GAO report said that the BLM has failed to update its inspection procedures to reflect technological advances that have transformed the oil and gas business. The agency also does not coordinate inspections with state regulators in Utah and three other states, the GAO added.
Industry representatives pointed to these findings to argue states are better positioned to oversee wells than the feds.
"They are better resourced and have a greater understanding of the varying geology throughout their region," said Tim Wigley, president of Western Energy Alliance. "Compared to BLM’s outdated rules, states with significant production are effectively addressing risk by updating their rules to provide additional protections and encouraging the use of new technologies."
But Utah officials said their regulatory staffs are too small to help BLM much with its oversight duties.
"To say that we’re going to start inspecting federal wells is just above and beyond what we could do," said John Rogers, associate director of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.
He said companies inspect their own equipment to safeguard their investment, so it’s likely that at least some of Utah’s uninspected wells have been checked by someone.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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