ODNR Considers Need For More Oil And Gas Well Inspectors

Nov 18, 2013

Companies continue to grow their natural gas production from Ohio’s shale formations, and state inspectors play a key role in defending communities and the environment.

But there’s a debate on whether or not the state has enough inspectors for the important task.  Ohio Public Radio's Andy Chow reports.

Environmental advocates are calling on the state of Ohio to strengthen its force when it comes to oil and gas well inspectors. These are people with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources that keep an eye on drilling sites before, during and after the production of a well.

Right now the state has 41 full-time inspectors with seven managers who also perform inspections. That’s 48 people overseeing a state that has more than 64,000 active wells.

Nathan Johnson is an attorney with the Ohio Environmental Council. He says the inspectors only look at 10% of the state’s active wells every year. With the proliferation of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, that workload could start to stack up as more horizontal wells go online.

Johnson: “There aren’t enough inspectors right now to get out there and do the on-the-ground job and looking for violations, looking for spills, looking for pollution—I mean that really needs to be beefed up a lot.”

But it’s not that simple, according to Tom Stewart. He’s the executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, a group that represents companies in the industry.

As Stewart explains, while the ratio may seem lopsided, most wells are smaller, low-producing operations that don’t need constant review especially since the construction of the well is the most important phase.

Stewart: “It would be pointless and a waste of the state’s resources to have the number of inspectors to go out there and inspect each one of those. That’s the same as saying that you need a restaurant inspector for every little restaurant or bistro or food serving facility that’s out there—you wouldn’t staff up so that there’s a one-to-one ratio or whatever people are suggesting.”

Dave Claus is deputy chief with the state’s Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management. He says, right now, the state has enough people to handle the workload.

Claus: “It’s constantly changing—we evaluate our need and as we see an increase in activity then we’ll post a position for more inspectors. I would say at this point we’re right on target but we are anticipating more inspectors to be hired.”

A 2012 report by EnergyWire, an energy focused news publication, took a closer look at inspector ratios from top oil and gas producing states. According to the report, Oklahoma had 62 inspectors to oversee more than 180,000 active wells. It was noted that an active didn’t necessarily mean it was producing. As for Pennsylvania, the reports showed 83 inspectors for more than 32,000 producing oil and gas wells.

Again Stewart says this all depends on the size of each operation and its production status. But Johnson with the Ohio Environmental Council says it’s not just about the inspections but the level of enforcement.

Johnson: “Unfortunately we have a history, whether it’s this administration or frankly administrations in the past there seems to be a pattern of looking away and not being as serious as the administration should be or could be in terms of enforcing violations when they occur. So it’s not only staffing but being serious about violations when they’re found.”

Stewart and Claus say the inspectors have been efficient in reviewing Ohio’s wells. 

As far as hiring more inspectors, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources has new authority granted by the General Assembly. Governor John Kasich included a measure in his budget that allows ODNR to request more money from the state when needed. In fact, the department is looking to hire three more inspectors right now.