From: SUE MAJOR HOLMES, Associated Press Writer
Published February 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Environmental Group Says Oil and Gas Wells in Western States not Being Inspected Enough


An environmental group says oil and gas wells in five western states aren't being inspected often enough, and the inspections that are done are more likely for production than ecological concerns.

In a report released Wednesday, the Western Organization of Resource Councils said New Mexico, Colorado, Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota have 79 percent of the active wells on Bureau of Land Management land nationwide, but only 26 percent of the inspectors.

Inspections do not keep up with the rapid pace of oil and gas development, few enforcement actions are taken even when problems are identified, and citizens' complaints often are ignored, according to the report.

Former state regulator Oscar Simpson, who is president of the New Mexico Wildlife and a member of the National Rifle Association, said regulations are being bent to help the oil and gas companies because less money spent on regulation and environmental cleanup means more in profits for the industry.

Simpson said oil and gas development is hurting New Mexico's environment by fragmenting wildlife habitat, reducing the ability of public lands to support other uses, such as recreation and grazing, and polluting the environment.

Budgets for environmental protection in regulatory agencies are minimal and the overriding objective is voluntary compliance rather than enforcement, he said.

The council recommended the BLM require annual environmental inspections for active wells, issue new drilling permits only if inspection goals are met, set clear policies on enforcement and encourage the public to report perceived violations and investigate those complaints.

It said there should be enough inspectors so each is responsible for no more than 300 active wells, and that inspections should be often enough and fines high enough to ensure compliance.

The report said the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division issued 1,940 notices of noncompliance or violation in 2003, while the Farmington BLM office issued 503. The state agency collected seven fines; the BLM office none.

A spokesman for the state agency did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press.

But Hans Stuart, a spokesman for the BLM in New Mexico, said the federal agency has a relationship with the oil and gas industry that allows it to handle problems before they're serious enough to mean fines.

Steve Henke, manager of the Farmington BLM office, said his office resolves issues at the lowest level _ a noncompliance report _ so they don't escalate to penalties or suspending a lease.

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