Horrible oil and gas inspector snafu in California presents Colorado with cautionary tale

News this week from California dovetails with news from Colorado to send a chill down the spines of water watchers across the state.

As the San Francisco Chronicle website SFGate reported Sunday, overworked, confused, techno-bureaucratically challenged California regulators over the course of years gave oil and gas companies the greenlight to drill 464 wells into the state’s precious aquifers and unload millions of gallons of produced water from hydraulic fracturing bearing brine and chemicals, which are now mixed with drinking and crop-irrigation water. This at a time when California is experiencing record drought conditions.


[blockquote]The problem developed over decades, starting with a bureaucratic snafu between state and federal regulators. It was made worse by shoddy record keeping and, critics say, plain negligence. The issue erupted into public view last summer when state officials abruptly shut down 11 waste-injection wells in Kern County, fearing they could taint groundwater supplies already feeding homes and farms…

Most of the waste-injection wells lie in California’s parched Central Valley, whose desperate residents are pumping so much groundwater to cope with the historic drought that the land has started to sink.

Meantime in Colorado, the Sierra Club and the University of Denver’s Environmental Law Clinic last week reported the results of a review they conducted of Colorado’s oil and gas permitting office. The report has made headlines — bad headlines.

As Bob Berwyn reported for the Colorado Independent:

[blockquote] On a detailed spreadsheet, the DU student lawyers showed that nearly 200 permits (of 1,300 studied) were missing critical details related to the well sites, including a failure to identify the number of wellheads at the operation, what zone the well site may be in, and any comments regarding the well site location.

In La Plata County, 5 out of 17 permits approved after August 2013 (when stricter setback rules were adopted) lacked critical information. In Garfield County, 10 out of 71 permits approved after August 2013, lacked critical information. Finally, in Weld County, 161 out of 792 permits approved, after August 2013, lacked critical information.

That means the permits are failing to inform the public and those directly affected by the well sites about the exact details and scale of the industrial development their neighborhoods.

“Absent or incomplete information regarding setbacks hinders the process of public commenting and this leads to less thorough and meaningful public comments … The amount of missing information in the Form 2As, approved after August 2013, makes it apparent that the COGCC is not adequately reviewing each permit for compliance with Colorado’s Setback Rules,” the researchers wrote in a Jan. 28 memo that details their findings.[/blockquote]

At a meeting held last month in Greeley — the heart of the Front Range gas patch — Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Matt Lepore told members of Gov. Hickenlooper’s drilling task force that the state employs roughly one inspector for every 2,000 wells being drilled in Colorado. Some say the number is closer to one inspector for every 3,000 wells. However you do the math, it’s clear that there’s a paucity of inspectors and, as residents of the gas patch are quick to remind anyone who will listen, whatever rules and regulations the state may have passed or may pass in the future matter not in the least if there’s not enough inspectors to make sure the rules and regulations are being followed.

Colorado’s most populous counties have hosted an oil and gas boom for the last decade. There are some 53,000 active oil and gas wells now being worked in the state. But, as in California, air and water remain Colorado’s most precious commodities, even if they have less paid defenders than do oil and gas at the Capitol.

As they say in the gas patch, how many inspectors could Colorado hire to monitor the well site in my backyard with the bare-minimum $12 million the drilling industry spent on political campaigns in the state last year?

[ Photo by Les Stockton.]