Investigation Finds BLM Failed to Inspect More Than Half of High Risk Oil and Gas Wells
“Can’t anybody here play this game?” baseball manager Casey Stengel said about his 1962 New York Mets, renowned as the worst team of all time.
Stengel’s famous line comes to mind with the recent publication of a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO)—Congress’ investigative arm—showing that the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the leading regulator of oil and gas drilling on federal land, wasn’t even inspecting more than 2,100 of the 3,702 wells drilled between fiscal years 2009 and 2012 that the bureau, itself, had designated as high risks for water pollution or other environmental harm.
The GAO also found that missing data in BLM’s database made it unclear whether 1,784 wells drilled during the four-year period were identified as high- or low-priority for inspection. “Without these data, the extent to which the agency inspects high-priority wells is not known,” the GAO found. The GAO added that the BLM had reviewed only one field office after the agency recommended in fiscal year 2011 that all field offices be reviewed annually to ensure that oil and gas inspections were completed. “Without monitoring its field offices, BLM cannot provide reasonable assurance that they are meeting their inspection goals,” the GAO found.
What’s especially depressing about the GAO’s findings is that other regulators are on the same playing field. An Earthworks investigation of six drilling states (CO, NM, NY, OH, TX, WY) found that in 2010, state regulators failed to inspect almost 350,000 active oil and gas wells, or more than 50 percent of all active wells in the six states.
The EPA generally has to sit on the bench thanks to federal legal exemptions for oil and gas drilling that prevent agency oversight. Even in the few cases in which the EPA has the power to regulate oil and gas drilling, the agency has turned a blind eye.
With such lax oversight, it’s no wonder that citizens are taking matters into their own hands by passing ordinances and regulations at the local level in states including California, Colorado, New York, Virginia and Texas that prohibit or all but prohibit oil and gas drilling and fracking. Americans Against Fracking is calling for an all-out fracking ban on BLM lands.
We deserve better regulation. But until we get it, these movements will continue to grow.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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