Absence of information has the curious characteristic of being innocuous as long as it goes unnoticed, and undeniably intriguing once it becomes apparent. Once you notice something is missing, you can’t stop looking at the hole where it should be and wondering what should actually be there.
For example, a recent report published by the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shows just how little data is publicly available on the subject of oil and gas company spills and other violations in the United States.
I noticed this some time ago when I posted comments on the large 2013 Tesoro oil spill in North Dakota that took over a week to report to the press (and which is still in the clean-up process, 18 months and $20 million later).
I looked for data on oil spills across the 36 U.S. states with active oil and gas installations, but information was difficult to find. I attributed that difficulty to my own lack of time and online savvy, but as it turns out, the reason runs deeper.
Neither state nor federal regulatory agencies provide this data in any consistent form, and if corporations have extensive monitoring and data on spills, they are keeping it to themselves for the most part.
According to the NRDC study, many violations are never reported at all. It should be added that many violations aren’t considered report-worthy because of lax standards and enforcement found in many states.
What happens when no consistent records are kept?
There can be no true accountability of the impact of oil and gas industry operations and activities on the communities and environments in which they conduct business. Noncompliance with safety standards and construction requirements becomes difficult to enforce due to the lack of a track record. The same goes for on-site worker safety regulations and compliance.
Companies with an (invisible) history of violations can skirt notice and supervision. The true boundaries of pollution and damage can be minimized or even denied.
The NRDC report makes for interesting reading and now I can’t stop looking at the empty space where all the information should be.