SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has the nation's highest rate of newly drilled oil and gas wells that federal officials deemed a priority but failed to inspect amid a surge in drilling in recent years, according to an Associated Press review of government data.
Data from the federal Bureau of Land Management show that from fiscal year 2009 to 2012, the agency failed to inspect 67 percent of the 327 wells on federal and Indian lands deemed a high priority in the state. They're located in eastern Utah's Uinta Basin, the center of the state's oil and gas production.
They are among about 1,400 priority wells that went unexamined in 13 states. The wells are deemed high pollution risks or are located near national forests and fragile watersheds.
As drilling mushroomed across the country in recent years, BLM officials say the agency has struggled to keep up with new wells and offer competitive salaries for inspectors.
"No one would have predicted the incredible boom of drilling on federal lands, and the number of wells we've been asked to process," BLM deputy director Linda Lance told The Associated Press.
Budget cuts and a disconnect in bookkeeping could exaggerate the numbers, said Utah BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall, but she added they highlight the need for better regulating.
The Utah BLM has brought on more inspectors in recent months, bringing the state total to about two dozen, but officials warn that tight budgets could still pose problems.
Nationally, the agency says it struggles to offer competitive salaries in places such as Utah, where petroleum engineers can earn a starting salary of $90,000, more than double the $35,000 the BLM typically offers.
The federal agency is responsible for about 100,000 oil and gas wells on public lands across the nation, with nearly 3,500 wells designated as high priority.
Dennis Willis, a former BLM field officer in the eastern Utah city of Price, said part of his role involved oil leasing and drilling decisions before his retirement in 2009.
He believes the wells went unchecked due to a lack of funding and BLM management prioritizing new permits over inspections.
"There is an emphasis on issuing a permit for the next one rather than inspecting the last 100 we already issued," Willis said.
Willis, who now works as a consultant for conservation and other groups, called it "a disaster waiting to happen."
Lance said the agency is working to minimize risks to the communities near wells and is reviewing whether it needs to slow the pace of approval for new wells.
The agency has also appealed to Congress for money to address the inspection gap.
In its most recent budget request, the BLM has asked for $48 million to be designated for inspections. The budget request would also allow the agency to offer a higher salary for inspectors.
Elsewhere, federal officials may also look to the states for help tackling the issue. A recent audit from the Government Accountability Office said the BLM needed to coordinate better with state regulators to make the most of scant resources.
But Utah regulators are in no position to pick up the slack for the federal inspectors, according to John Rogers, the associate director of the state's Division of Oil, Gas and Mining.
The majority of Utah's wells located on federal land and fall under federal jurisdiction. Rogers said his small staff of eight state inspectors is in no position to cover the work the federal agency missed.
Rogers said it's a concern if a well is not being inspected, but "to say that we're going to start inspecting federal wells is just above and beyond we could do."
The oil and gas companies will inspect their own equipment, Rogers said, so it's likely that the 219 wells that went without federal checks were at least reviewed by someone.
Associated Press writers Hope Yen and Annie Knox contributed to this report. Yen reported from Washington, D.C.