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For natural gas drilling technology, how much oversight is needed?

More than 10,000 times in the 12 months ending Aug. 31, oil and gas operators in Texas sank steel pipe into the ground and cemented it in place -- a critical process aimed at preventing groundwater contamination before and after a well goes into production.

Texas Railroad Commission inspectors personally witnessed 1,561 of those surface casings, according to agency records. That represents only 15.4 percent of the 10,140 surface-casings at well sites.

Is that enough?

Commission inspectors witness as many as possible, given staffing limitations, commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said.

For most surface casings that commission inspectors did not witness in fiscal 2009, the agency's geologists and engineers closely reviewed forms filed by oil and gas operators regarding well construction, Nye said. When operators make their filings, she said, they must declare, under threat of prescribed penalties, that the information is "true and correct."

Commission critics say the agency is too closely tied to the state's politically powerful oil and gas industry and fails to provide sufficiently stringent regulation.

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