ProPublica report: state oil and gas enforcement staffing levels inadequate

Colorado oil and gas regulators have admitted to the Colorado Independent they’re spread too thin to handle a new set of EPA rules if proposed federal hydraulic fracturing legislation is passed by Congress, but a new ProPublica investigation suggests staffing may even be inadequate to handle current levels of state oversight.

According to an investigation published today, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) had only 11 enforcement staff for 34,144 wells in 2008, or about 3,104 wells per inspector.

ProPublica reported the number of oil and gas wells drilled is up 149 percent since 2003 in Colorado but enforcement actions by the COGCC are up just 26 percent in that same time period. However, state enforcement staff has jumped 73 percent since 2007, and the report says there were 19 staffers working on enforcement in 2009.

Colorado passed some of the most environmentally stringent drilling regulations in the nation last spring, prompting criticism on the political right and a lawsuit by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. Then in June Colorado congresswoman Diana DeGette introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Chemical Awareness (FRAC) Act.

The FRAC Act would remove a Safe Drinking Water Act exemption granted hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in 2005 during the Bush administration. Fracking involves injecting high pressure water, sand and undisclosed chemicals deep underground to free up more natural gas. Critics say it can lead to groundwater contamination.

“Virtually all natural gas wells get fracked, so if we have to issue a specific approval for each of those fracks, we’re talking about a couple thousand additional approvals a year that we would have to be reviewing materials on and administering, and what would the ramifications of that be for our program and the other work that we’re doing?” COGCC executive director David Neslin told the Colorado Independent in August.

In a story in Tuesday’s Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, industry experts suggested Colorado’s gas-rich Piceance Basin was becoming less attractive to operators because of the state’s regulatory environment and better access to gas fields such as the Marcellus Shale in the eastern U.S.