We tried to speak with a representative of the New York DMR Bureau of Oil and Gas Permitting and Management about obtaining statistics on inspections, violations, and complaints relating to existing wells and facilities. However, our calls were not returned. Eventually, in response to an email request for information on these topics, Earthworks received this reply:
“The Division of Mineral Resources does not currently have a database for the information requested below. We are preparing to have one in operation at the time high-volume hydraulic fracturing activities are approved to go forward in the state. We do have paper records located in the field offices where the proposed wells were drilled. The record [sic] are filed by county, operator and by well name. You can review the paper records at our . . . offices.”
Some data are publicly available, such as statistics on inspections, enforcement actions and penalties collected for oil and gas violations, but no detailed information is currently available on-line. This makes it very difficult for the public to monitor oil and gas operations.
DEC must ensure that adequate resources are put toward increasing transparency of oil and gas facility data and oil and gas enforcement data. These systems should be put in place before shale development is allowed to occur in the state.
According to the DMR Bureau of Oil and Gas Permitting and Management web site, the Bureau investigates and resolves citizen complaints and non-routine incidents. As with other enforcement-type information, the Bureau currently does not track citizen complaints in a manner that is accessible to the public.
Other states track and publish data on citizen complaints. The Texas Railroad Commission publishes quarterly statistics on complaints. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) publishes complaints statistics in its staff reports, and COGCC’s online database enables users to view the 5,000 most recent complaints.
Citizen complaints can be an important barometer of industry behavior, and citizens can provide a crucial early warning of problems at oil and gas sites. In Texas, the oil and gas regulatory agency has stated that “Citizens are viewed as extra eyes to help the RRC [Railroad Commission] identify problems..” In 2009, the RRC received 681 complaints related to oil and gas and found 1,997 violations based on these complaints. In Pennsylvania, complaints led to the discovery of at least 700 violations between 2007 and 2011.
To utilize the “extra eyes” of citizens, however, state oil and gas agencies like DEC must work cooperatively with citizens and dedicate sufficient resources to track and respond effectively to citizen complaints.
At the present time DEC does not appear to be dedicating enough resources to citizen complaints. Currently, the investigation of water well complaints in relation to oil and gas development is not always handled by DEC. Based on information in the SGEIS, it is not clear if the DEC will only respond to water complaints that occur during oil and gas drilling, or whether DEC will also investigate water complaints if they occur close to established oil and gas wells or other oil and gas facilities (such as chemical storage areas). All citizen complaints related to water contamination, especially those involving methane, hydrocarbons, or chemicals in water, should be followed up by DEC regardless of the stage of oil and gas development.
DEC should be fostering relationships with the public by ensuring that citizen complaints are taken seriously and are resolved in a timely manner. Part of strengthening relationships involves increasing transparency by creating a publicly accessible database that documents all complaints, and includes information on how DEC responds to and resolves citizen complaints.