OVER THE past decade, a U.S. energy boom has cut oil and natural gas imports, revitalized manufacturing and enriched rural communities. But will the massive increase in oil and natural gas production mar the environment?
We believe that the risks are manageable, but success will depend on rules that limit air and water pollution from unconventional drilling, which the Obama administration is formulating, and on adequate enforcement of those rules. On that front, several reports from the Government Accountability Office, an independent watchdog, show that the administration is not keeping up.
The latest analysis from the GAO found that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees drilling across the 700 million subsurface acres belonging to the federal government, has been struggling to come to grips with the last decade’s oil and gas bonanza. Natural gas production from unconventional wells quintupled between 2007 and 2012, the GAO document, released last month , reported. Production of unconventional oil wells increased six fold over the period. Nearly all the wells on federal land now use unconventional hydraulic fracturing techniques, known as fracking. These shifts demand oversight from government inspectors, particularly as rules come online for them to enforce. Of particular importance on federal lands are BLM efforts to strengthen well casings, deal with tainted wastewater and prevent the release of various gases, including methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
The BLM is supposed to sort out high-priority wells and inspect all of them. But the GAO found that, between 2009 and 2012, the regulators failed to inspect more than 2,100 of the 3,702 wells they had flagged as high-priority. Inspecting fewer than 60 percent of high-priority wells is not good enough. Meanwhile, inspectors in the field are often armed with obsolete marching orders because the BLM hasn’t updated some of its drilling standards in decades. And the agency has not coordinated enough with state governments to maximize the number of high-priority wells that get looked at by some authority — whether state or federal.
Though the BLM lodged technical complaints about the GAO’s report, it did not dispute the overall thrust. Instead, the BLM told the GAO that it did not have the staff to do its job. Indeed, earlier GAO reports have found that the government struggles to hire and retain qualified inspectors, leading to less oversight. The BLM’s solution is to charge fees from those who want to extract oil and gas on federal land to cover more inspections, raising some $10 million next year. The policy makes sense, tying inspection funding to the level of production and charging energy users, not taxpayers, to ensure that drilling is done well. Lawmakers should follow through.
But the BLM isn’t off the hook. That it has not yet updated decades-old standards and coordinated with states indicates that it still is not deploying the resources it has as efficiently as it could. For the nation’s energy renaissance to really pay off, government regulators have to up their game.