Story by The Denver Post
That is among the findings of a study done by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the FracTracker Alliance – although that probably wasn’t the point they were trying to make.
The two groups said they launched an investigation dubbed “Fracking’s Most Wanted: Lifting the Veil on Oil and Gas Company Spills and Violation.” The aim was to determine “what information about oil and gas company violations is publicly available, how accessible it is and whether it provides an adequate understanding of the about the practices of different companies,” the report said.
They learned that only three states – Colorado, Pennsylvania and West Virginia – have online databases and so that’s what they looked at.
Violations of state regulations were analyzed between 2009 and 2013, which happens to coincide with the shale drilling boom. Colorado’s Niobrara shale is being intensely developed for its oil resources and the Marcellus Shale, which stretches from Pennsylvania through West Virginia, has become a major natural gas field.
Making direct comparisons among states is difficult because what constitutes a violation or a reporting requirement varies. That said, Colorado is generally held up and one of the states with the most comprehensive oil and gas regulations in the country, so the chances of running afoul of the rules may be greater.
On the other hand the report notes that Colorado has a total inspection staff of fewer than 40 in a very big state with some 50,000 wells, so the chances of missing something might be greater.
Colorado, the report notes, has 3,485 operators, including 125 with more than 100 wells each. Still, if one looks at the top five violators in each state, a more visible group, the numbers are interesting.
The Colorado group is composed of Chevron, WPX, Noble Energy, Encana Corp. and Pioneer Natural Resources. The first thing about this group is that Chevron, WPX and Pioneer are not part of the Niobrara drilling boom but drill and operate gas wells in the San Juan and Raton basins and on the Western Slope. Encana splits its activity between the Western Slope and the Front Range.
This group accounted for more than half of all the violations NRDC found during the five year period, so the data doesn’t tell much about what’s going on in the Front Range drilling boom. Houston-based Noble Energy, which was the second largest Front Range oil producer in 2014, had 17 violations from the 10,704 wells it operates.
The total violations among the five tallied 130 for 27,066 wells or five-thousandths of a violation per well.
Pennsylvania’s top five violators posted 1,976 violations for 16,791 wells, according to NRDC. That is a .12 violations per well, or 24 times the rate in Colorado.
Of course, it may be worse. Energy In Depth, a petroleum-industry-financed research, education and truth-squad organization did a critique of the NRDC study, with one point being that the report vastly overstates the number of wells drill in Pennsylvania.
Energy in Depth counts 2,591 Pennsylvania wells. Of course that gets close to one violation per well or 200 times the rate in Colorado.
The report is “riddled with errors and is short on much-needed context,” Randy Hildreth, of EID, wrote in a blog criticizing the NRDC report. Hildreth also noted that EID’s review showed that 10 percent of the Colorado violations involved paperwork of filing errors.
So what to make of the numbers?
Amy Mall, an NRDC analyst and co-author of the report, tried to put it in a broader context. “The first thing is that in most states there is no data on violations easily available to the public,” Mall said. “Kudos to Colorado for making it available, it could be better, but it is better than many states.”
“This is just a broad brush,” Mall said. “But the fact is wells are going on farms, near people’s homes and we have to keep better track of what is going on.”
Still, the numbers do raise questions.
Are the operations in Colorado so much better than they are in Pennsylvania or are are Colorado regulators missing a lot of violations? How many of the violations are serious? Colorado certainly has had its share of serious violations – benzene tainting a drinking water well and a neighborhood subjected to weeks of noise and vibrations. The well pollution drew a $425,000 fine.
It is, however, impossible to tell from the gross numbers the nature of the problems — and once again most of these violations did not happen where the drilling is most intense in Colorado.
A much finer screen needs to be applied to figure out what is going on. Regardless, Colorado has been under pressure to toughen fines and inspections.
Colorado hiked its basic fine for a violation to $15,000 from $1,000 earlier this year and a bill working its way through the state legislature would add 12 inspectors to the oil and gas commission field staff.
The NRDC report faults state’s where fines can be waived or reduced if the operator remediates a problem or complies with requirements prescribed by inspectors — this is the policy in Colorado. It also calls for keeping “repeat offenders” out of communities. But violations come in all sizes and which ones should trigger such a stiff policy?
“What we are saying is that there needs to be more transparency and more data available to the public,” the NRDC’s Mall said.
That is a position that gets a lot of traction but it is is a a far cry from the report’s claim of “lifting the veil on oil and gas company spills and violations.”