The Edmond Sun

Nation & World

July 5, 2012

Natural gas growth adds strain to state regulators

WASHINGTON — The surging natural gas industry has sparked a hiring frenzy in Ohio.

Energy companies are adding workers to tap the lucrative Utica shale deposit that stretches across the state’s eastern half. In rusty cities such as Youngstown, the demand for drilling equipment has swelled the ranks of steelmakers.

Even the cash-strapped state government is hiring because of the gas boom: The Ohio Department of Natural Resources says it plans to add many as 70 new field inspectors to its oil and gas team by the end of the year, more than tripling its inspection force.

The agency had more than a quarter of its budget cut between 2011 and 2012, but it will be able to add the new workers thanks to a huge increase in fees collected from drilling applications. Natural gas companies drilled just 25 new wells in Ohio in 2011. But state regulators predict that number will soar to 250 by the end of this year and double by the end of 2013. Meanwhile, oil well drilling is expected to stay steady.

Gwen Lachelt of Washington, D.C.-based Earthworks, which advocates more oversight of the natural gas industry, praised Ohio’s move — but she worries that it won’t be enough. She also notes that in other states with surging natural gas production, there has been no effort to beef up oversight of the oil and gas industry.

“No one is minding the store,” Lachelt says. “The states are simply not enforcing what regulations they do have on the books…They don’t have enough inspectors, and wells are going uninspected.”

Increasingly, energy companies are using horizontal hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — to extract natural gas trapped within underground shale formations. By blasting millions of gallons of chemical-laced water into the ground, companies are able to extract gas that used to be impossible to reach. But critics of fracking argue that the method can easily contaminate local water supplies.

Ohio isn’t the first state to respond to the shale gas revolution by hiring more inspectors. In Pennsylvania, where natural gas drillers have flocked for several years, the state has added more than 100 inspectors since 2009.

Even before it began adding workers en masse, Ohio ratcheted up its inspections. Last year, Ohio’s team of about 30 inspectors performed a total of 11,842 inspections, up from 1,300 in 2010.

But Ohio inspectors visited fewer than half of the state’s 55,749 oil and gas wells. In Ohio, as in many other states, inspectors simply don’t have enough time to visit the hundreds — or thousands — of wells they are assigned to oversee.

In Ohio, the shale plates are mostly confined to the eastern and northwestern parts of the state. Still, each inspector might log up to 2,500 miles in a month, says Gene Chini, who supervises inspectors in the northern part of the state.

A well inspection can take hours or just minutes, depending on the circumstances. Most inspections take place during new drilling, when environmental problems are most likely to occur. In Ohio and Colorado, regulators might visit a new drilling site a handful of times in a single week, state officials say.

Once the drilling process is complete, inspectors spend most of their time responding to complaints — from landowners or others — about local wells. When there is time, inspectors make random visits. They check for cracks in cement well casings, or damage to other equipment that may cause spills, or leakage of poisonous gas into the air or water supply.

But because of a lack of manpower, most wells across the U.S. are not inspected in a given year. Many of them are small wells, where any problems would be small, too.

Ohio’s inspectors have an easier job than their counterparts in some other states. New Mexico has roughly the same number of oil and gas wells as Ohio, but it employs only 12 inspectors to oversee them. That small crew made between 25,000 and 30,000 inspections last year — more than 2,000 per inspector, according to data gathered by Earthworks.

Oklahoma has a much bigger staff. It employs 58 inspectors this year, 6 more than it had in 2011, according to figures the state provided to Stateline. But Oklahoma’s oil and natural gas reserves are bigger than those in most other states. Its inspectors oversee a total of 180,000 oil, gas and injection wells. Last year, the team made more than 52,000 inspections.

In Colorado, home to 47,651 wells, a team of 15 performed 12,000 inspections in 2011, according to the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Since some wells were inspected more than once, particularly during drilling, the stage where the bulk of accidents occur, that means that inspectors examined far fewer than one-quarter of them during the year. The agency has since added two inspectors.

“It’s a long distance between wells,” says Thom Kerr, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. “(Inspectors) easily drive over 400 miles a day.”

In some states, those same inspectors must also handle problems with abandoned wells, many of which often go undocumented and can be hard to find. That’s the case in Oklahoma, says Matt Skinner, spokesperson for the state’s Corporation Commission, which recently spent at least a week finding and plugging a long-forgotten well that was gushing underwater.

Neal Woods, a University of South Carolina professor who specializes in enforcement of environmental policy, says it’s not surprising that some states pay little attention to enforcement, a topic that’s seldom discussed in legislatures, or covered by the media.

“It’s an easy target for cutting,” he says. “There’s a lot of attention paid to the development of initial standards, but the enforcement tends to be kind of behind the curtain.”

In West Virginia, which permits between 400 and 500 new wells each year, a team of 15 is charged with monitoring more than 55,000 active wells. The state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is trying to hire more inspectors, but doing so has proved difficult. The starting annual salary for an inspector is just $35,000, an amount that’s nonnegotiable because it’s set by statute.

“We are in a very challenging position,” James Martin, chief of the office of Oil and Gas for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, said in a statement earlier this month. “We have jobs that need to be done, but we don’t have enough candidates for them because of the requirements and we are limited in the salary we can offer.”

Kerr, the Colorado commission head, admits he’d like to see more resources for inspections. “We certainly could use more manpower,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say we’re staffed in such a way that it’s a disaster.”

Kerr and other state officials say it is misleading for groups such as Earthworks to extrapolate such doom and gloom pictures from raw inspection numbers, which don’t tell the whole story, considering that types of inspections vary broadly, as does geography and other on-the-ground factors between the states.

“It becomes very frustrating because we’re the ones doing (the work) and knowing what’s going on,” says Chini, the regional supervisor in Ohio.

“What is enough inspected?” asks Kerr. “Who’s to say how many wells we should inspect?”

That’s a tough question to answer, because there are no federal guidelines on the issue. It’s up to each state to decide.

In Colorado, Kerr says he’d like inspectors to check each well at least once every three years, but that’s a tough task. In Ohio, Chini says he hopes staffing upgrades will enable inspectors to make rounds at least once every two years.

In the meantime, both men know their agencies will be scrutinized by private environmental watchdogs. Though zealous environmentalists may sometimes add a level of stress to the job, they can also be helpful in identifying problems not yet on the radar, the officials say.

“There’s a lot of eyes out there,” says Kerr, “and that’s an asset to inspectors.”

1
Text Only
Nation & World
  • spts-Weber St. Anthony Morales.jpg Bulldog grad a Carolina Panther

    Former Edmond Memorial linebacker Anthony Morales is not going to attend school this fall at Weber State University.
    Instead, he signed an NFL contract with the Carolina Panthers Thursday morning.
    “I’m on the 90-man roster and I've got to make the cut, so I’ll be in the preseason games and then after the third one, they do the cut to 55 and then after the last game, they go down to 53,” Morales said. “(The Panthers)” have 10 linebackers, including myself.”

    August 1, 2014 1 Photo

  • TRAVEL - (8-2) White Haven green house.jpg New view on President Grant

    What do you know about Ulysses S. Grant? If you’d asked me that before my visit to St. Louis, I would have said: “President of the United States, Commanding General of the Union Army, buried in Grant’s Tomb and — a drunkard.”  Three out of four is not bad, but as history, I pretty much have to give myself a D.
    On previous visits to the Gateway City, Jack and I have visited Grant’s Farm — an area attraction owned by Anheuser-Busch. In the midst of the 281 acres stands a small log cabin — once the home of Ulysses S. Grant. Somehow, I never noticed the road just outside Grant’s Farm boundaries that leads to the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, a property of the National Park Service.

    August 1, 2014 1 Photo

  • Lankford, James 2011.jpg Lankford, rest of Oklahoma delegation vote to sue president

    A Democratic leader said the House does not have standing to sue the president after members of Oklahoma’s congressional delegation voted to do just that.
    At 6:28 p.m. Wednesday, members of the House approved by a 225-201 partisan margin H. Res. 676, which gives House leadership the authority to file a lawsuit challenging actions by President Barack Obam

    July 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • weather 1.jpg July could be coolest in weather record books

    With chances for soaking rains and unseasonably cool temperatures becoming frequent, a weather expert is increasingly convinced Oklahoma will end up with a historic July.
    At mid-afternoon Tuesday, the National Weather Service forecast for Edmond called for the high Wednesday to be near 73 with a 90 percent chance of heavy rain, followed by the high Thursday near 78 with a 30 percent chance of showers.
    Highs are expected to remain in the 80s into Monday.

    July 29, 2014 3 Photos

  • jc_ITS map.jpg City to improve traffic flow

    The Edmond City Council this week approved a services agreement with Electronic Technology, Inc. For the  installation of Intelligent Transportation Systems’ video wall system at a cost of $314,620. The vote was 3-0.
    ITS is a fiber optic, wireless or hybrid communication system of monitoring road events and equipment in the field, data archiving and predicting traffic volume, said Kent Kacir, an engineer with Kimley-Horn and Associates Inc.

    July 29, 2014 1 Photo

  • jc_Earp Marlin 2 - photo credit Noel Winters.jpg Shootout of a sale

    An original article of the Wild West will be made available at auction Thursday. The rifle of legendary lawman Wyatt Earp will be part of the J. Levine Auction & Appraisal’s Summer Quarterly Auction in Scottsdale, Ariz.
    Earp was an Arizona deputy sheriff and deputy town marshal in Tombstone, Ariz. He is legendary for playing a key role in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He died in 1929 at age 80.
    Wyatt Earp collector Barry Tapp of Edmond will be selling his 1895 Wyatt Earp Marlin rifle at the auction. The rifle has an estimated value between $50,000 and $75,000. It includes authentication documentation from Tombstone Heritage Museum, according to the auction house

    July 28, 2014 2 Photos

  • sales tax holiday.jpg Oklahoma sales tax takes a holiday

    Beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Friday, Aug. 1 and ending at midnight Aug. 3, Oklahomans will be able to participate in a sales tax holiday giving shoppers the opportunity to purchase certain clothing and shoes free of sales tax.
    Yes, retailers may not charge tax, including state and local sales taxes on items that are tax-exempt during the sales tax holiday weekend. The sales of clothing and shoes priced at less than $100 are exempted from sales taxes.

    July 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • Blackmon.jpg Local cops arrest NFL player on marijuana complaint

    The Edmond Police Department has released the incident report related to the arrest of ex-Oklahoma State star and current NFL player Justin Blackmon.
    Blackmon, 24, a product of Plainview High School in Ardmore, is a 6-1, 210-pound wide receiver in his second year with the Jacksonville Jaguars. At Oklahoma State University, he was a two-time Biletnikoff Award winner as the country’s best collegiate wide receiver.

    July 24, 2014 1 Photo

  • A Q&A on ‘Obamacare’ Court Rulings

    On Tuesday, two federal appeals courts issued conflicting rulings on the legality of tax subsidies being provided to people who bought “Obamacare” health insurance policies in Oklahoma and 35 other states.
    Here’s a look at the rulings’ potential impact in Oklahoma.

    Q: I’m confused. What did the courts rule today?
    A: A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals circuit in Washington, D.C., decided that the government can’t provide tax subsidies for Affordable Care Act plans purchased in 36 states where the federal government is operating the health insurance exchange. Oklahoma is one of the 36 states. A few hours later, the U.S. Court of Appeals circuit in Richmond, Va., issued a conflicting ruling that upheld the legality of the health-care law’s tax subsidies.

    July 22, 2014

  • June healthy month for Oklahoma jobs

    Nearly 10,000 new jobs in Oklahoma were created in June, according to the U.S. Labor Department.
    Gov. Mary Fallin said Tuesday the state experienced one of the largest increases in employment in the nation in June. More than 9,600 additional people joined the state’s workforce in June.
    The unemployment rate in June dropped to 4.5 percent, its lowest ratio in six years. June’s rate was down a percentage point from 4.6 percent in May and April, according to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.

    July 22, 2014