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Secretary Jewell: US fracking inspectors are 'under-resourced'

Speaking to reporters during a Monitor-hosted breakfast on Tuesday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell painted a picture of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as an agency that is underfunded and overextended.

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    Interior Secretary Sally Jewell speaks to reporters during a Monitor-hosted breakfast on Tuesday, September 15, 2015 in Washington, DC.
    Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
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America’s oil and gas boom is outpacing the US government’s ability to inspect the wells responsible for the country's newfound energy abundance.

Speaking to a group of reporters during a Monitor-hosted breakfast on Tuesday, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell painted a picture of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) as an agency that is underfunded and overextended.

“While the BLM has done everything in its power to focus the limited resources it has on the highest risk situations, we are under-resourced,” Secretary Jewell said.

“We have an appropriated budget, which has been declining relative to the workload,” Jewell said. “You have a ramping up of interest – even though current oil prices are dampening that a little bit right now. And we have a major backlog of inspections that people expect us to do on public lands that we are not able to do because we’re resource constrained.”

In June, the Associated Press published a report detailing the full extent of the BLM’s predicament. Four out of ten of the country’s high-risk oil and gas wells have not been inspected by the federal government, according to AP, while around half or more of the wells on federal and tribal lands were uninspected in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.The findings have been cause for concern among populations living close to gas and oil wells, many of whom worry toxins from hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, could be leaking into their drinking water.

In order to address these issues, certain changes need to be made to solve the bureau’s resource shortage, the secretary said Tuesday. One of the proposed changes would be to require the private sector to cover the cost of well inspection.

“I’ve asked for something very basic, very consistent with what we have offshore for onshore, which is: Let’s match supply and demand,” Jewell said.

She emphasized that charging oil and gas companies a fee when there is an oil boom would ensure that the BLM had the resources necessary to process the permits and inspect the wells that these companies need and use.

Meanwhile, however, the government’s plan to modernize BLM’s fracking regulations has been put on hold after a district court judge in Wyoming issued a stay of the new rules in June. Advocates of more stringent fracking regulations are now waiting for the judge to determine whether the cost of compliance would hinder business.

Speaking to reporters during Tuesday’s breakfast, Secretary Jewell said BLM’s regulations were in need of an overhaul.  

“The rules that the BLM currently has in place were the rules that were in place when I was in petroleum engineering ... There [has] been a lot of change in the industry technologically since that time, and yet our regulations have not kept pace,” she explained.

Ultimately, however, Jewell said she is confident that the judge will take the new rules into consideration because they would work to keep populations safe. 

“You’ve seen a lot of controversy surrounding fracking, a lot of fear on the part of the communities. What communities expect of their regulator is that whatever practices are being done in their communities, on their lands, in their states, is not something that is going to damage their health or their environment. That is what our rules do,” she said.

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