KAHRIN DEINES Associated Press Writer HELENA
An environmental group has released a report finding U.S. Bureau of Land Management environmental inspections have not kept pace with oil and natural gas development in five energy-rich Western states. The report released by the Wes tern Organi zat ion of Resource Councils on Thursday follows up on a similar 2004 s tudy done in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, New Mexico and Colorado. While the study found the agency has improved, council member Peggy Utesch said its inspections of oil and natural gas wells is "still woefully underfunded and inadequate." BLM is charged with regulating and leasing oil and natural gas that is owned by the federal government. The report, which draws on statistics from six field offices in the five states, found that in 2007 the agency completed only 15 percent of required environmental inspections that its own standards define as high priority. Back in 2004, inspectors at those field offices completed about 14 percent of the high priority inspections. "These changes constitute little more than a baby step from abysmally low base line levels measured three years ago," said Bob LeResche of Wyoming's Powder River Basin Council, one of seven environmental groups comprising the council. Inspection priority levels are set nationally and depend on a number of factors, including whether a well is located in an environmentally sensitive location, an operator's history of compliance, and the well's stage of development. A BLM spokesman for Montana and the Dakotas, Greg Albright, said the agency does a good job, and he's not sure how the inspection numbers were interpreted to produce the report's findings. "We've not been able to duplicate the numbers," Albright said. "I don't know how what was added where to do what." BLM he a d q u a r t e r s i n Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment. According to Albright, oil and gas well leasing on federal lands has fluctuated along with industry demand since 2000, with permitting applications hitting a peak for the three-state region of Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota in 2005. A record $36 million in lease sales were also registered for those states in fiscal 2005, with North Dakota pulling in the lion's share. That same ye a r t h e Government Accountability Office reported that increasing demand for drilling permits was undermining the national agency's ability to meet environmental guidelines. The report released Thursday finds BLM has made some improvements since then: the number of environmental inspection duties have been increased, more training is available for inspectors, and the number of inspections completed surged by 86 percent in fiscal year 2007.