Report says oversight of oil and gas development is insufficient; agencies says it’s not that simple

Apr 26, 2013

Oil and gas development in Wyoming has burgeoned in the last decade. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality…the Bureau of Land Management…the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission…and sometimes other agencies are all responsible for inspecting the sites. Wyoming Public Radio’s Irina Zhorov reports that some stakeholders say they’re not doing a good enough job monitoring operators. But agencies say it’s not that simple. 

IRINA ZHOROV: Jennifer Frazier is a Department of Environmental Quality oil and gas inspector. Frazier spends a lot of time in her truck. [truck driving] She makes rounds on the Jonah oil and gas field near Pinedale, driving up to the tanks that dot the horizon there, and idling as she works.

JENNIFER FRAZIER: I as an inspector go out routinely and ensure that nothing is leaking basically…       

ZHOROV: If she sees or smells a leak she pulls out her flare camera [camera clicking]…and records a visual of the fumes as evidence to send on to Cheyenne. She’s responsible for Jonah field, which has over 700 facilities. Last year, she visited about 80% of the sites, and says that’s good coverage.

But a report put out by the Western Organization of Resource Councils, or WORC, says there aren’t enough people like Frazier to go around. As of 2011, there were over 37,000 active oil and gas wells in the state. Last year, The Bureau of Land Management did about 8,000 inspections. The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission did over 7000. And Frazier’s department at the DEQ did about 800. Even though development has increased over the years, the report says the number of inspectors hasn’t kept up.

JOHN FENTON: It would take the Lander BLM office 9 years to do their inspection at current rates. They're not doing their job. It’s just that simple, they’re not doing their job.

ZHOROV: That’s Powder River Basin Resource Council member John Fenton.  He lives in Pavillion, with 24 wells on his property and he says he’s never seen an inspector and that worries him.

FENTON: It’s not like this is just some benign facility sitting in my front yard. This is a giant, explosive, gas producing facility with all sorts of toxins, all sorts of things that can go wrong. How can you get an idea of how well an operator is performing if you never do a damned inspection? We don’t have inspections out here.

ZHOROV: Turns out, the wells in his area were last inspected between 2008 and 2010, but they were only inspected because complaints about them came in. The wells on Fenton’s property aren’t even required to be inspected because they are low emitters.

Fenton says that’s a loophole in regulations.

FENTON: It’s these little things that add up over time.

ZHOROV: Fenton says it’s often the operator, in his case Encana, that is responsible for keeping its operations in compliance. Self-monitoring is something that both the DEQ and the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rely on. Companies are supposed to check their equipment regularly.  And Fenton says that’s another problem.

FENTON: I think it’s insane. It’s like leaving a bunch of kids in a room with a package of cookies and telling them not to eat the damn cookies.

ZHOROV: But Frazier says that’s not totally accurate.

JENNIFER FRAZIER: Sometimes people get upset with that because they think it's the fox guarding the henhouse, when it's actually not because Brandi and I go out with these people and we train them on how to do things and we go out and we audit how they’re doing things and sometimes we just are out there and we are watching them and if they miss something then we'll correct them on it.

ZHOROV: One of her colleagues is less sure. Jon Walker is an air quality engineer who heads up a study on engine emissions in the oil and gas fields.

JON WALKER: My personal opinion is if we want engines to be in compliance I think the DEQ should be testing as well. 

ZHOROV: But Steve Dietrich, the Air Quality Administrator for the DEQ, says that’s not always possible. It comes down to resources.

STEVE DIETRICH: Can you always use another hand? Any time you ask a company or a state agency the easy answer is yes. But that's not reality. And I think that we have a pretty good balance with the staff that we have. And without actually being in each facility each day I think we do a pretty good job of monitoring the situation state wide out there.

ZHOROV: Dietrich says the number of inspections has tripled since 2003.

Prioritization and planning in the various agencies happens differently at each one, though they all tend to place previously problematic facilities and operators at the head of the line. But, for example, though Frazier’s area has nearly 50% of the state’s gas and dehydration facilities, it only gets 24% of the inspectors.

Still, she says the compliance has improved, as well as operators’ responsiveness, and she’s proud to be a part of that.

FRAZIER: At one time when I very first started working out here, it'd be like, what, you're talking about a leaking thief hatch, all those thief hatches leak out there, yeah, they do...and I'm like well when you see 1000 of them leaking out there like I do you're creating a problem. And so now that's just not the case anymore. 

ZHOROV: Still, while operators and agencies are working closer together to better monitor development, other stakeholders, like land owners, say their concerns are very real and need to be taken seriously. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Irina Zhorov.

You can see the WORC report here []