VpW-Data-Feature

What can violations data tell us?

By Samantha Malone, MPH, CPH – Manager of Education, Communications, & Partnerships

The rate of violations by fracking companies has been of significant interest to many groups including our own. But why? What can violations data tell us about oil and gas safety that a news article about a particular incident cannot?

When companies do not follow regulatory standards and protocols – and either self report the issue or are caught – they may be issued a citation of some sort by the state regulatory agency where the violation occurred. While data of this kind is not always readily available, we can gain key insights into the environment of a particular company and the related state agency by reviewing these violations more closely.

The Stories Behind the Data

Violation trends can be indicators of environmental and public health risks, by looking into spills or illegal air emissions. The degree of transparency both within the oil and gas industry, as well as in the state regulatory agency, can be gleaned based on the quality and quantity of data available about company violations. And of course, the degree to which a company complies with our state and federal laws says a lot about their corporate environment and safety protocols.

In Pennsylvania, for example, we have seen a decline in violations per well over time (Figure 1, below). At first glance, this trend appears to be a step in the right direction. There could be several reasons behind this change, however, including but not limited to:

  • Improved compliance among operators – Great!
  • Decreased regulatory inspections – Not so great
  • Decreased regulatory reporting of violations during those inspections – Not so great
  • Changes in what qualifies as a “violation” or how violations data is collected/shared
  • Less self reporting by the companies when something goes wrong – Not so great
  • Larger, more established operators with better safety protocols have bought out smaller, resource-limited companies
  • Improved control technologies or infrastructure (throughputs) – Great!
  • More public pressure to comply with regulations – Great!
VpW PA Over Time

Figure 1. Violations per well drilled in PA 2005-2014. Data source

Two Recent Violations Data Reports

With the insight that can be acquired by analyzing violations (and other types of data), it is not uncommon to see an increase in the organizations and researchers digging into the data.

On January 27th, for example, Environment America released a report detailing the top oil and gas violators in the United States. Among their many findings…

Houston-based Cabot Oil, a prime Halliburton contractor, committed the most total violations with 265 across the study period. Chesapeake Energy was close behind. Pittsburgh-based Atlas was guilty of the most breaches for every well drilled, while Mieka, part of Dallas-based Vadda Energy, was responsible for the most infractions per well operated. Learn more

A report that we wrote last year finally made its way through peer review and was published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Health, Part A on Tuesday last week1. We did not focus specifically on the operators committing violations like Environment America did, but on the state of the data that is or should be available to the public about these operations from state regulatory agencies. Unfortunately, we found that many states often do not release violations data – especially not in a publicly accessible manner. Learn more about this study through an article I wrote for the Sunlight Foundation’s blog or check out the abstract.

A third violations report is due out soon, so keep your eyes peeled! UPDATE: As of April 2, 2015 – The Natural Resources Defense Council report is available.

Endnotes

1. The other publications in the special issue, Facing the Challenges – Research on Shale Gas Extraction, are listed below:

Foreword
John F. Stolz Professor, Duquesne University
Pages: 433-433

Current perspectives on unconventional shale gas extraction in the Appalachian Basin
David J. Lampe & John F. Stolz
Pages: 434-446

Long-term impacts of unconventional drilling operations on human and animal health
Michelle Bamberger & Robert E. Oswald
Pages: 447-459

Human exposure to unconventional natural gas development: A public health demonstration of periodic high exposure to chemical mixtures in ambient air
David R. Brown, Celia Lewis & Beth I. Weinberger
Pages: 460-472

Reported health conditions in animals residing near natural gas wells in southwestern Pennsylvania
I. B. Slizovskiy, L. A. Conti, S. J. Trufan, J. S. Reif, V. T. Lamers, M. H. Stowe, J. Dziura & P. M. Rabinowitz
Pages: 473-481

Marcellus and mercury: Assessing potential impacts of unconventional natural gas extraction on aquatic ecosystems in northwestern Pennsylvania
Christopher J. Grant, Alexander B. Weimer, Nicole K. Marks, Elliott S. Perow, Jacob M. Oster, Kristen M. Brubaker, Ryan V. Trexler, Caroline M. Solomon, & Regina Lamendella
Pages: 482-500

Data inconsistencies from states with unconventional oil and gas activity
Samantha Malone, Matthew Kelso, Ted Auch, Karen Edelstein, Kyle Ferrar, & Kirk Jalbert
Pages: 501-510

Scintillation gamma spectrometer for analysis of hydraulic fracturing waste products
Leong Ying, Frank O’Connor, & John F. Stolz
Pages: 511-515

Well water contamination in a rural community in southwestern Pennsylvania near unconventional shale gas extraction
Shyama K. Alawattegama, Tetiana Kondratyuk, Renee Krynock, Matthew Bricker, Jennifer K. Rutter, Daniel J. Bain, & John F. Stolz
Pages: 516-528