“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
-Justice Louis Brandeis, 1913
A brand new report highlights the transparency, or lack of it, of public records on oil and gas drilling in different states. It is yet another clear reason why local communities need to act to protect their water, their air, and their way of life.
The report’s bottom line: in 33 of 36 oil or gas producing states, it is almost impossible to get information on legal violations committed in the drilling process: spills, contamination, casing failure. And in the states that do have information readily available (Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Colorado), that information is often incomplete, hard to access or difficult to interpret.
The study, Fracking’s Most Wanted: Lifting the Veil on Oil and Gas Company Spills and Violations, was produced by the National Defense Resource Council and the FracTracker Alliance. It’s not long, and I recommend it to you. You can view it by clicking the photo on the right.
The report begins with the above quote from Justice Brandeis, and argues, “Communities want to know whether a company interested in fracking in their neighborhoods is a good corporate citizen that abides by the rules established to protect public health and safety, the environment, and quality of life. A credible measure of a company’s compliance lies in the documented violations incurred from state or federal regulatory agencies. Public access to this information is particularly important in this context because, unlike other industries, oil and gas wells and associated infrastructure and equipment are widespread and often operate in the middle of residential, rural and agricultural areas.”
The report evaluated such factors as whether the information was available online in an easy-to-use, downloadable format, whether the date, location and company incurring the violation were included, whether there was an understandable text description of the violation, and whether the regulation or code violated was cited. It found that even in the three states where information was readily available to the public, none complied with all these parameters for transparency.
What it means in Montana
Our experience in Montana, which does not put any record of violations online despite public requests to do so, is clear proof of the accuracy of the report.
When Energy Corporation of America (ECA) promised to come to our area and bring “a little bit of the Bakken” to the Beartooth Front, it made sense for local residents to want to check the public record.
We went to Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where ECA has extensive operational experience. What we found is that ECA is a serial polluter in both those states.
- In Pennsylvania, between 2005 and January, 2014, ECA had 66 inspections with violations, 90 separate violations, and 55 enforcement actions, with fines totaling over $80,000. You can view the actual report by clicking here. What’s more, we know that during this period inspectors were unable to monitor 82,000 wells, 91% of the state’s total number of active wells, so these violations are significantly under reported.
- In West Virginia, according the Department of Environmental Protection web site, ECA was guilty of 70 more violations, although detail is lacking on the exact nature of the violations, consistent with today’s report.
So for those of us in Montana who want to know about this specific company’s track record, there are only two public sources of information. Both are extremely damning.
ECA: “a lot of misunderstanding”
And what is ECA’s response?
The company says that the Pennsylvania and West Virginia reports, the only two sources of easily accessible public information about the company’s compliance record, are not correct. The company’s spokesperson traveled all the way from West Virginia to Red Lodge to tell us that public record was the result of “a lot of misunderstanding” — the laws were unclear, enforcement was inconsistent, and the company was really much better than that.
Watch for yourself, beginning at 10:26:
John Grewell: Can either of you comment on, you’ve had issues in Pennsylvania?
Jennifer Vieweg: Yeah, that’s something that is not well understood. It’s very different from anywhere else and here’s why:
The industry changed dramatically in Pennsylvania in about 2007-2008. Regulations changed constantly, regulators weren’t even quite sure what the regulations were. The industry, because the regulators didn’t know what the regulations were, it was hard for the industry to know what the regulations were, they were constantly changing so it was very hard to remain in compliance. All of that’s evened out over the last three years or so. Things have evened out. The industry understands what the regulations are, the regulators understand what they are, and, as such, you don’t see any of the same kind of issues as when it was constantly changing. There was a lot of misunderstanding with regard to the regulations.
CEO John Mork: “never had an environmental problem”
And you can watch as John Mork, ECA Chief Executive Officer, proudly tells an audience at West Virginia University that ECA has a perfect environmental record:
He describes how safe fracking is beginning at 28:47, and concludes by saying, “Another statistic that I love to tell, we have fracked over 10,000 times and never had an environmental problem…Statistically we are so far ahead on this that this is just not a question to us.”
Montana landowners need to take action to protect themselves
All this clearly illustrates how the law leaves Montana landowners unprotected. There are few public sources of information regarding the safety records of operators who want to drill on our property.
What records there are reside in out of state databases, and oil companies obviously feel as if they can just lie about their records to cover up their transgressions.
It is not unreasonable for landowners to require the collection and publishing of their own information about the safety records of oil and gas companies. It makes sense for landowners to establish rules for the testing of water, air and soil; to demand setbacks from their homes; and to prohibit dangerous practices such as flaring.
The state of Montana does not protect local landowners from oil and gas operators who have records of being polluters in other states.
Local landowners need to do it themselves.