BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Federal oilfield inspectors are hustling to clear a backlog of hundreds of uninspected well sites on public and tribal lands in North Dakota, amid the explosion of drilling activity.
The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees drilling on federal land, said agency regulators are being brought in from other states to supplement North Dakota staff, with a goal by year's end to catch up with inspections on "high priority" sites.
Keeping pace with the booming oil production has been a challenge, said Loren Wickstrom, a BLM assistant field manager in Dickinson.
"We're swamped," he said.
Still, the agency is making progress on its oil inspections, with about half the 335 sites identified as high risk being cleared from the list since October, Wickstrom said. His office also is in charge of inspecting well sites in South Dakota, where about half of the 20 high priority sites remain unchecked.
"We should get 100 percent checked this year (in the Dakotas)," Wickstrom said. Harsh weather slowed inspections over the winter but "the big push is right now," he said.
BLM records say 116 of 696 high-priority wells drilled from fiscal year 2009 to 2012 in North Dakota and one of two in South Dakota were not inspected during that period. But they have since been checked, Wickstrom said.
The uninspected wells include new ones and those that might have fallen into the high-risk category.
The bureau provided The Associated Press with the national records giving a snapshot of three years' worth of inspections. The agency oversees 100,000 oil and gas wells on public lands, about 3,500 of which received the high-priority designation. Nationally, about 40 percent of high-priority wells haven't been inspected, showing a department struggling to keep pace with America's drilling boom over the past decade.
In all, 19 states have high-priority wells and 13 states, including North Dakota and South Dakota, had high-priority wells that were uninspected.
BLM deems a well site high priority after performing a risk assessment on the site, based on production of the well, its location to an environmentally sensitive area and whether the well's operator has had past compliance problems, Wickstrom said.
The intense focus on high-priority wells at present has meant that the hundreds of less risky wells in western North Dakota and dozens of those in South Dakota have largely remained unchecked in recent months. The agency has a goal of checking all wells at least once every three years and is still on track to do that, Wickstrom said.
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