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Inspector Shortage in Colorado Oil Fields Sparks Concerns

Kirk Siegler

The oil drilling boom along Colorado’s Front Range is generating a lot of tax revenue for cash-strapped governments. But it’s also putting a strain on state regulators whose job it is to make sure all the drilling and well sites aren’t polluting.

There are now more than 47,000 active oil and gas wells in Colorado, but the state employs just seventeen inspectors to keep tabs on them. One solution being floated is to allow local governments to hire their own inspectors to ease some of the workload. But it’s getting mixed reviews across the state.

A ‘Staggering’ Workload

Each day, Jim Precup of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission logs about 400 miles criss-crossing the oil and gas fields of northeast Colorado.

“It’s absolutely staggering,” he says.

Not just the mileage, but also the workload.

Precup has to supervise his agency’s inspectors, but because there are so many wells, he’s also in charge of inspecting 12,000 himself.

“It’s not an easy job, it doesn’t suit everyone,” Precup said one early morning after making a quick coffee run at the Johnson’s Corner truck stop off Interstate 25 in northern Colorado.

From there, it was east into booming Weld County, where he spends most of his days.

Drill rigs, storage tanks, hauler trucks seem to be everywhere once you’re east of I-25 in the county; now home to one of the highest concentrations of oil and gas wells in the country. Drilling operations are sandwiched between homes, schools and stores and in the middle of farm fields.

Precup hops out of his truck to have a look at one of them. Inspectors can show up whenever they want, unannounced, and he climbs a ladder to the top of a large green, well tank. Precup pops the hatch to one of the tanks’ lids and peers inside.

He’s looking for potentially harmful gasses escaping from the well itself, and for spills seeping into the ground that could contaminate water below.

Things here look pretty good.

“All of this stuff is looked at by an inspector at a glance, just like that,” Precup says clapping his hands together. “Five to seven minutes we’d assess this, another 10-15 minutes we’ll be onto our next one.”

Even so, all the state’s seventeen inspectors combined can only thoroughly check about 1,800 wells a year. And the newer ones that are being built and hydraulically fractured, or fracked, are the priority. But they also spend a lot of their time investigating complaints.

“Do we need to add people, absolutely,” says Precup matter-of-factly.

Boots on the Ground

It’s a predicament not unique to booming northeast Colorado. Next door in Wyoming, there are a dozen inspectors for about 60,000 wells. North Dakota has 19 field inspectors looking after 6,600 wells.

The lack of boots on the ground is a concern for suburban mom Jen Palazzolo, who started the anti-fracking group “Erie Rising” when wells and drill pads began to proliferate in and around her neighborhood east of Boulder.

“The fact that wells have gone five plus years without being inspected, it’s really hard to believe that preventing adverse environmental and human health impacts is a top priority,” Palazzolo says.

With her three year old son in tow, Palazzoloo drives her Kia minivan by one of those wells that an inspector hasn’t visited, according to state records, in more than five years.

It lies next to a large home on the edge of her “Erie Village” subdivision.

“Especially in an area so close to where you have a large number of children, could something major go wrong that could have been prevented if it was inspected, or is there something minor occurring that nobody’s picking up on because nobody’s been out here in five years to check it,” Palazzoloo says.

These what-ifs are very much on the mind of Mike King, director of Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources which oversees all oil and gas drilling.

But the state’s tight budget is also a concern.

“It’s a constant question for us as regulators is do we have the resources,” King says. “And it’s not just on oil and gas, it’s mining, it’s game wardens for enforcement of wildlife laws.”

King, who chaired the Governor’s recent oil and gas task force, says the state is planning to hire two more inspectors. That panel also recommended that local governments hire their own well inspectors, who would be trained by and answer to the state.

Unfunded Mandate

The idea of getting help from local governments came from a pilot project with the COGCC and Gunnison County. The city of Longmont and other local governments may soon follow.

But not everyone’s on board.

“Just as we don’t like the idea of taking over the state’s regulatory authority, we also don’t like the idea of an unfunded mandate, where we would assume all of the expense and none of the authority over whatever it is these local inspectors discovered,” says Fred Diehl, assistant to the town manager of Erie.

In his office in the refurbished historic town hall in Erie, Diehl pulls up some recent air quality studies on his computer showing elevated levels of volatile organic compounds in the air around town.

The VOCs are blamed on emissions from nearby wells.

“The lack of inspectors is definitely one issue, but you have to ask yourself another question, what happens with the data these inspectors come back with,” Diehl says.

A frustrated Diehl says his town and its residents’ concerns just aren’t being met by the state.

Retention Concerns

Back in Weld County, Jim Precup of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission slows his truck to a stop on a shoulder near the town of Platteville. It’s begun to rain and he’s watching to make sure workers on some nearby rigs take shelter from the lighting.

He bristles at criticism that his agency is doing enough to make sure the environment is protected.

“We’re not resolving all of the issues and problems because they may not be problems that are under our jurisdiction or they may not be problems that we are witnessing,” Precup says.

In seven hours, he’s inspected a handful of wells. If the state brings on new inspectors that will help his workload some, but hiring and training them will take time.

And then there are concerns about retention, he says. Precup knows that many of his workers could be getting paid double in the industry.

Kirk Siegler reports for NPR, based out of NPR West in California.
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