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Colorado BLM Improves Its Record On High Risk Well Inspections

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A well being drilled in Western Colorado in 2009. Two hundred high priority wells on federal land in Garfield County went uninspected between 2009 and 2012.

About a month ago, the Associated Press broke the news that four in 10 new "high-risk" oil and gas wells on public lands went uninspected from 2009 to 2012.

In Colorado at least, the agency in charge of such inspections says it has been able to improve that record in 2013, following a critical report by the Government Accountability Office [pdf].

"Since the GAO report closed in 2012, we've been able to hit almost 100 percent of those high-priority inspections," said Vanessa Lacayo, a spokeswoman with the Colorado Bureau of Land Management.

Although the agency is still collecting data on its well inspections for 2014, (most inspections take place during the warmer months), it inspected all of the 23 wells listed as high priority in 2013, and also inspected 86 other wells, Lacayo said. High priority wells are those located in a sensitive area, perhaps near a water source or in an area that might impact wildlife.

In Colorado, 244 of those high priority wells went uninspected between 2009 and 2012. Two hundred of those wells were in Garfield County, a drilling hot spot.

One of the reasons for the poor inspection record is the agency's struggle to recruit and retain qualified inspectors, even as drilling has boomed on public lands said Lacayo.  They've been able to add inspectors recently – four in 2014 – and that helped ease the backlog.

"Especially in areas that have oil and gas operations, those positions pay in some cases double what we offer in the public sector," Lacayo said.

There's an ongoing effort to resolve this problem, and increases in pay to make the scale more commensurate with private sector work have helped some. The agency still needs more boots on the ground, though, she said.

Another reason for the improvement in high priority inspections is also that the agency has become more careful in how it gives wells this label. Before, wells might get assigned as high priority before they were examined by staffers on the ground, Lacayo said. Now, BLM technicians are trying to get out in the field before they list wells, to see if they merit the designation.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has also offered to support the BLM in conducting inspections of high priority wells.

Later this summer, the BLM's national office will issue a response to the GAO report, clarifying any discrepancies in the government watchdog's analysis  and outlining any actions they plan to take to remedy the problems outlined in the report.

Stephanie Paige Ogburn has been reporting from Colorado for more than five years, primarily from the Western Slope.
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