Oil Spill in Utah National Monument Illustrates the Need to Correct the BLM’s Failure to Inspect All Gas & Oil Wells on Public Lands

June 27, 2014-

In the West, the news of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) failure to inspect risky oil and gas wells on public lands has been a hot topic at the water cooler lately. The agency has reportedly failed to inspect almost half of the high-risk wells on our public lands–the wells that the BLM has identified as most likely to leak and to spill oil and chemicals out onto the lands (and water) that belong to us all. The BLM is charged with protecting that land, water, and other important resources, and it’s failing to meet that mandate.  (Wonder where those high-risk wells are?  Check out this map.)

The national news outlets also took notice that in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, a group of hikers discovered a pool of oil covering about four miles of a wash above the Escalante River. As reported in the Albuquerque Journal:

The BLM’s official report on the Little Valley Wash spill notes that the “vast majority of the oil spill may be as much as three decades old” and more recently, that “a small pipeline appears to have leaked from time to time.” The small pinhole leak discovered in a pipeline appears to have been too small to affect the system’s overall pressure, which means the pressure-monitoring systems, designed to shut off during a major leak, were never triggered. … Meanwhile, though the BLM has started planning new surface-use rules, it has ordered no further cleanup and issued no sanctions or fines.

Even more troubling, an examination of nearby areas in the national monument found that at least five more spills had occurred since the 1960s.  Some were old and hardened, some more recent and covered up by sand.  Luckily, this time hikers had stumbled across the active spill and sounded the alarm.

These reports, of failure to inspect high-risk wells along with discovery of decades-old oil spills, clearly illustrate the growing threat of oil and gas development to our public lands.  It’s quite simple: uninspected gas and oil wells can cause permanent damage to the land and water, and oil and gas companies have too little an incentive to monitor their wells, because they are rarely fined and certainly not fined at a level that matters to them.  Some of the spills found in the Utah national monument will likely never be cleaned up because hardened oil spills can release toxic petrochemicals when disturbed.

The BLM is responsible for over 100,000 wells on public lands, less than 4,000 of which are considered high risk. They inspected only 40% of those risky wells, mostly in six states in the south and midwest. Wells in Wyoming, Colorado, California, New Mexico and North Dakota didn’t get as much attention from inspectors.


The BLM says they don’t have the resources to properly inspect all the wells drilled since the fracking boom began. Indeed, the buck doesn’t stop with the BLM, but with Congress because lawmakers set and approve the BLM’s budget.  As reported by Huffington Post:

 Dennis Willis, a former BLM field officer in Price, Utah, says he routinely provided input on oil leasing and drilling decisions on federal land before his retirement in 2009.  He described a situation of chronic underfunding dating to at least the early 2000s, when BLM management made clear that issuing new permits would be a priority over other tasks, according to a 2002 memorandum from supervisors in Utah to field officers.

It’s disappointing to hear that the BLM seems to have decided that leasing lands for new drilling was more important than enforcing regulations and inspecting wells. In the Grand Staircase-Escalante area, four of five spills the BLM found in a half day of looking around the area were old. If this is an example of the BLM’s oversight, imagine how many other spills may have occurred on our vast public lands across the West.

Citizens understand that laws and regulations are set up for the BLM to heavily favor the oil and gas industry. Communities are pushing back and demanding more regulation and outright bans on oil and gas development because they can’t count on the government agencies charged with regulating the industry to do their job.

The BLM needs to clean up their act and ensure that all oil and gas wells on public lands are regularly inspected before they issue even more drilling permits. They should prioritize protecting sensitive areas – lands that are unstable, unique, and special (such as delicate watersheds, roadless areas, important animal habitats, recreation areas, or areas close to residential centers).

Until then, the public will continue to demand better regulation and much improved oversight.  As stewards of our nation’s public lands, we hope that staff at the BLM will rise to the occasion.

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