The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is on track to complete at least 2,000 more surface inspections at oil and natural gas well sites this year than it did in 2016, thanks to computer software launched in February that has made the process more efficient.
The DEP conducted nearly 35,000 compliance inspections at conventional and unconventional sites last year. Those inspections were done with paper and clipboards in the field, which required personnel to return to the office to upload data into the agency’s system. The new tablet application has nearly eliminated trips between the field and the office. It has also helped to eliminate duplicate entries and save money, an agency official said this week.
“This device has transformed the way DEP conducts its inspection activities,” said DEP’s Scott Perry, deputy secretary of the Office of Oil and Gas Management.
The application is pre-loaded with operator and well site information, includes voice recognition and photographic capabilities, and is synced with the agency’s inspection and compliance management database. Perry said it has also allowed DEP to personnel, operators and the public with data faster.
DEP projects the software may help to save $500,000 annually, or roughly the equivalent of adding six additional inspectors. It’s being employed at a time when the agency’s budget and staffing levels have declined, even as fixed costs and responsibilities have continued to increase in the shale era. The oil and gas office staff peaked at 226 people but currently stands at 190.
“We needed to manage our costs and we needed to seek creative ways to achieve the same goals,” Perry said during a press conference. “We are meeting our inspection goals and this tool is going to help us exceed those goals and free up staff to do other important work like addressing legacy well issues that we might not otherwise have had time to do.”
DEP launched the application for surface activities, such as pad construction and pipeline development, in February. By November, Perry said surface inspectors were using it to conduct nearly all of their inspections. Early this fall, the agency enabled the software for subsurface inspections for drilling and completion activities.
While the agency receives some of its budget from the state general fund and federal funds, most of it comes from fees and fines. Inspections also increased between 2015 and 2016. The trend brought with it more violations for unconventional operators, which went from 404 in 2015 to 456 last year, according to DEP’s latest annual report.
The DEP has been working to update its technologies and processes for years, but the application was launched as part of the Governor’s Office of Transformation, Innovation, Management and Efficiency, a collaborative initiative across state government aimed at modernizing operations, reducing costs and improving services.