demo­crat is right on math for state’s well in­spec­tors

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO&STATE - By W. Gardner selby

Seek­ing a seat on the Texas Rail­road Com­mis­sion, Hous­ton lawyer Jeff Weems said the com­mis­sion is in charge of mak­ing sure a dis­as­ter like the BP oil spill doesn’t hap­pen in Texas.

The Demo­cratic nom­i­nee went on to tell the United Auto Work­ers cau­cus at the party’s state con­ven­tion June 25: “Right now, there is one in­spec­tor for ev­ery 4,500 wells. You can’t do that job.”

Un­der­staffing in the ex­treme? We won­dered if Weems got that right.

In e-mails, Weems told us he heard there’s one field in­spec­tor for ev­ery 4,500 wells from Paul White­head, who works in a com­mis­sion of­fice in Mid­land.

Weems said that’s higher than the 1-for-3,300 ra­tio he got ear­lier from ProPublica, which de­scribes it­self as “an in­de­pen­dent, non­profit news­room that pro­duces in­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism in the pub­lic in­ter­est.” ProPublica pub­lished an ar­ti­cle in De­cem­ber 2009 say­ing the Texas com­mis­sion had 83 field in­spec­tors, “mean­ing each per­son is re­spon­si­ble for al­most 3,300 wells, many of them re­quir­ing sev­eral vis­its in a year.”

It quotes Weems as say­ing: “It’s one of the

worst­kept se­crets around the state that the wells that are os­ten­si­bly checked once a year aren’t. They could dou­ble the num­ber of in­spec­tors and still be strain­ing their staff to do their job.”

White­head re­ferred us to the com­mis­sion’s Austin head­quar­ters, where spokes­woman Ra­mona Nye con­firmed that, of late, Texas has 86 in­spec­tors for 394,365 oil and gas wells, in­clud­ing 282,150 ac­tive wells.

As of May 28, these in­cluded 740 bay and 341 off­shore wells in state wa­ters, which ex­tend about 10 miles off­shore. Agency charts show the num­ber of wells un­der the com­mis­sion’s watch is up 11 per­cent from Jan. 24, 2003.

Over­all, the in­spec­tor­to ­all­wells ra­tio is 1­to­4,586.

The com­mis­sion’s ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, John Tin­tera, told us that the com­mis­sion has sought ad­di­tional in­spec­tors, with mixed re­sults.

The Leg­is­la­ture nixed a request for seven in­spec­tors in 2003, Tin­tera said, but in 2009 it OK’d two new pipe­line in­spec­tors and au­tho­rized four more well in­spec­tors, con­tin­gent on rev­enue from fees de­posited in the state’s Oil Field Cleanup Fund.

How­ever, the money needed to make the hires did not ac­cu­mu­late.

Nye said the agency hasn’t de­cided whether to request fund­ing for more in­spec­tors from the 2011 Leg­is­la­ture.

In an e­mail, Weems was crit­i­cal of the cur­rent staffing level: “You can­not ac­tively monitor that many wells — there is no way you can go by, in­spect what is go­ing on — check for leaks, con­di­tion of the premises, etc., ex­cept once ev­ery 3­5 years, and then only if you fly.”

Nye said in­spec­tors drive to well sites.

Tin­tera told us that ev­ery well isn’t in­spected ev­ery year; in­stead, in­spec­tors fo­cus on wells where there’s greater pro­duc­tion or en­vi­ron­men­tal sen­si­tiv­ity.

He ini­tially in­di­cated that the com­mis­sion has enough in­spec­tors to ful­fill de­mands: “What Texas needs is what we have.”

Tin­tera later said the com­mis­sion would “wel­come more re­sources, in­clud­ing in­spec­tors. How­ever, we rec­og­nize the bud­get con­straints fac­ing the state. There­fore, the RRC pri­or­i­tizes its in­spec­tions, uses out­rid­ers (in­spec­tors who work from home) lo­cated near the oil fields they in­spect to max­i­mize ef­fi­ciency and has not in­cluded in­spec­tor po­si­tions in the hir­ing freeze that is cur­rently at the agency.”

All in all, Weems ac­cu­rately re­caps the num­ber of oil and gas wells per in­spec­tor in Texas. His state­ment is True.

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