New York State Fails to Inspect Most Oil and Gas Wells or Penalize Violators
Today, Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) released a new report, NYS DEC: Inadequate enforcement guarantees irresponsible oil and gas development. The report reveals the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is inspecting only a small proportion of the state’s active oil and gas wells and has failed to penalize those who violate state regulations.
- More than 75 percent of active oil and gas wells go uninspected each year, and the rate of inspections has dropped significantly in recent years.
- New York ranks lower in rate of inspections than Colorado, New Mexico and Texas, and has less stringent recommended inspection guidelines than some other states.
- Few violators are penalized and current penalties are far too low to deter future violations.
- Data on violations are not publicly available, making it impossible to be sure that the DEC is doing its job.
- The agency does not utilize complaints by citizens directly impacted by drilling to improve oversight.
“Governor Cuomo has said the state will allow deep shale gas development only if it can adequately oversee the industry, but it’s doing a poor job with existing wells,” says Nadia Steinzor of Earthworks’ OGAP. “How is it going to handle drilling that uses more chemicals and produces more waste so that public health and the environment are not put at risk?”
New York is considering whether to move forward with issuing permits for high-volume hydraulic fracturing using horizontal drilling (commonly called “fracking”) to produce gas from the Marcellus Shale. Although the state currently has about 10,000 oil and gas wells, it is not prepared to regulate or monitor the more intense and expansive industrial extraction and production activities being contemplated.
“New York is poised to potentially make a bad situation far worse,” says Bruce Baizel, Earthworks’ OGAP senior staff attorney. “This report shows that the DEC does not have its house in order, and shouldn’t be considering issuing permits for new wells and more complex and riskier drilling.”
Gov. Cuomo has indicated the strong possibility of moving forward once the DEC finalizes the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), which will guide how shale gas development is conducted, and revises aspects of its oil and gas regulations. As Earthworks’ OGAP emphasized in its comments on the SGEIS, DEC has neither the budget nor the staff to actually enforce the proposed regulations nor the mechanisms in place to prevent problems that can result from a lack of oversight.
Research conducted by Environmental Advocates of New York shows that the DEC is currently operating with 1,000 fewer staff than 20 years ago due to budget cuts, a statewide hiring freeze, aggressive retirement incentives and layoffs. DEC’s spending on equipment and travel for inspections, enforcement and clean-ups has also been cut by more than half since 2008.
This situation is compounded by oil and gas industry exemptions from parts of seven federal environmental laws that prevent air and water pollution, protect public health and ensure the proper handling and disposal of hazardous waste. If New York decides to move forward with shale gas development, it would face tremendous challenges in addressing such critical problems.
“New York’s inadequate enforcement shows why citizens must have federal protections in addition to strong state regulations,” says Lauren Pagel, Earthworks’ policy director. “New Yorkers will be at risk unless loopholes are closed in bedrock laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.”
The report puts forth common-sense recommendations to improve DEC enforcement and oversight, including developing comprehensive and binding inspection protocols, increasing skilled inspection staff, publicizing inspections and violations information, higher fines for violations and strong action against operators with a poor safety record.
Partner organizations joining in the report’s release include Catskill Mountainkeeper, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Earthjustice, Environmental Advocates of New York, Environment New York and Riverkeeper.