As discussed on the Earthworks: Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Enforcement – Violations web page, when inspections of oil and gas well sites occur in Pennsylvania violations are found. Unfortunately, not enough inspections are taking place, and as a result many problems are likely going unreported and are being left unaddressed. As seen in the table, in 2010 DEP failed to inspect more than 82,000 or 91 percent of active wells and 88 percent of wells that produced oil or gas that year. In 2011, 86 percent of active wells and 80 percent of producing wells were not inspected.
In 1987, the Pennsylvania DEP published an Inspection Policy for Oil and Gas Well Activities, which was adopted into the Pennsylvania Code on July 28, 1989. The policy “does not create a duty or obligation upon the Department to conduct a minimum or maximum number of inspections,” but sets forth the intended frequency of inspections, and the circumstances under which a well operator can expect an inspection by the Department.
The policy states that “The Department, its employees and agents intend to conduct inspections at the following frequencies,” and suggests that wells be inspected approximately seven times before a well begins to produce oil or gas, at least once a year thereafter during the production stage to determine compliance with oil and gas statutes, and various other times throughout the life of a well. New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is nearing the end of an extensive process of reviewing its regulations related to shale gas drilling. Recently, a spokersperson for the DEC said that “the state’s draft plan would require at least 13 inspections during each well drilling and completion.” This is more stringent than DEP’s 1987 inspection policy, which was developed at a time when high-volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal wells were not yet being used to access oil and gas from shale formations.
DEP is nowhere near keeping up with its 1987 Inspection Policy. There were a 2,843 new wells drilled in Pennsylvania in 2010. Under the policy, there should have been close to 20,000 inspections of those wells. Also, the 61,000 producing wells in 2010 should have each received an inspection. If DEP had been following its adopted policy, it would have performed more than 80,000 inspections. However, in 2010 DEP carried out 15,368 inspections, or just 19 percent the intended inspections laid out in the policy.
It is clear, even to the oil and gas industry, that DEP cannot keep up with its inspection load. At a New York Times Energy Conference held in April 2012, Steve Mueller, president of Southwestern Energy Company, said that “We as an industry have gone to the state of Pennsylvania and said you don’t have enough inspectors, you don’t have enough people.”
DEP needs to increase the frequency of inspections on new and existing well sites. Until DEP can demonstrate the capacity to oversee existing wells, new drilling permits should not be issued.