Records Reveal Inspection Lapse at California Oil and Gas Wells

By SCOTT SMITH | June 16, 2014

Federal officials in charge of overseeing the drilling of new oil wells on public land in California let three years pass without inspecting some high-priority sites, according to public records.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management records say 31 of 99 high-priority wells drilled from fiscal year 2009 to 2012 in the state’s oil-rich Central Valley were not inspected during that period, the most recently available records provided by the bureau. Each of the uninspected wells is located in Kern County.

A BLM official in Sacramento disputes the number of uninspected wells, saying that bookkeeping errors have misrepresented the problem.

“The BLM takes its responsibilities seriously and is continuing to improve our internal recording processes and our ability to inspect all high priority drilling operations to ensure they are done safely and responsibly,” said spokeswoman Dana Wilson in an email to The Associated Press.

She and state Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources spokesman Don Drysdale have said all sites that have gone into production have been inspected since 2012.

Coordination between the federal and state agencies have “helped both the BLM and the state avoid redundancy and ensure compliance,” Wilson said.

Wilson had previously said tight budgets prevented her agency from being more thorough, noting that officials can’t charge industry fees to perform inspections.

Nationally, the BLM stands by the data provided to the AP that showed a snapshot of three years’ worth of inspections. The agency oversees about 100,000 oil and gas wells on public lands, about 3,500 of which received the high-priority designation because they’re located near national forests, fragile watersheds or are otherwise identified as higher pollution risks. About 40 percent of high-priority wells hadn’t been inspected, showing a department struggling to keep pace with America’s drilling boom over the past decade.

The records indicate 13 states, including California, have high-priority wells that were uninspected.

The 31 well sites are listed in the bureau’s records under four corporate names, and the bureau’s Bakersfield office oversees their inspections.

Macpherson Oil Company, which primarily drills near Bakersfield, controls 17 of the sites. The firm’s website says that Macpherson meets and exceeds safety and environmental regulations, listing a number of agencies that monitor its work, including the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Berry Petroleum Company has 11 well sites listed as uninspected by the bureau, records show. Berry Petroleum merged last year with LINN Energy, a Texas-based firm with operations across the country.

Occidental Elk Hills has two of the oil wells, the records show, and Vintage Production California LLC has one. Both firms are part of Occidental Petroleum Corporation, an international company with operations in the United States, Latin America and the Middle East.

No representatives from the oil firms named in this story responded to requests by the AP for comment.

Rigorous inspections of California’s oil industry are key to protecting drinking water, said Laura Crane, director of the Nature Conservancy’s initiative on renewable energy. The federal and state governments are both developing rules to govern hydraulic fracturing, she said, adding that any of these new wells could one day be used for fracking.

“There really is an opportunity to think about how to make sure California has the gold standard in regulation,” Crane said. “Monitoring and enforcement of regulations is critical to protecting people and nature.”

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