DISASTER LESSONS: Plenty to learn from oil and gas flood damage
After last month’s Front Range flooding tore through oil and gas facilities, causing some tanks to leak and even become unmoored, employees with the energy producer Encana noticed an interesting trend.
Although Encana’s tanks were damaged, the company didn’t experience the kind of damage that some other companies did from trees falling on tanks or being swept into them.
As it happens, Encana spokesman Doug Hock said, the company typically fences in well pads where it operates in the flooded area because its operations there tend to be in more densely populated areas. While the fences weren’t installed for flooding purposes, they ended up helping keep out debris.
“It was kind of an ah-ha, light-bulb moment to say, going forward we should do this because it helped protect those pads,” Hock said.
As the energy industry continues cleaning up after the flooding and bringing wells back on line, companies, regulators and environmental advocates are all looking increasingly at what lessons can be learned from the disaster — what went wrong, what went right, and what can be done to reduce problems in the case of future flooding. Eventually, this consideration will likely turn to what possibly should be required of the industry in the future, including in terms of floodplain and riparian regulations.
“I’d like to see us get a stakeholder group together to evaluate and assess the floods and also see what worked, what didn’t work, what we can make better” in terms of oil and gas operations, said state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, a Steamboat Springs Democrat who earlier this year got legislation passed tightening oil and gas spill reporting requirements.
Alan Gilbert, special assistant for flood response to state Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Mike King, said while it’s still early, the department and Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staff are evaluating how things went during the flood and what can be improved in the future, including possibly through new regulations.
“We take that very seriously. We think that’s true, we should do that and that’s what we will do,” he said.
Photos of floating tanks and reports of leaks alarmed Front Range residents concerned about oil and gas drilling there. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, who shares some residents’ general concerns over drilling, called in late September for a congressional hearing on the flood-induced oil and gas damage.
“Congress must deal with this issue to ensure that natural disasters do not also become public health disasters,” he said in announcing that request.
More recently, though, state health officials reported no evidence of pollutants from oil and gas spills in rivers and streams affected by flooding, even as it found in some areas high levels of E. coli from sewage contamination. That contamination amounted to many millions of gallons, whereas as of Friday 47,106 gallons of oil and 28,149 gallons of produced water from drilling were reported spilled.
Gilbert voiced some relief over no single catastrophic release or cumulative collection of spilled oil or other contaminants being found so far.
“It’s an emergency and a tragedy and a terrible situation but this aspect of it is on the side where we are grateful for less rather than more contamination and releases,” he said.
Although the sheer volume of floodwaters heavily diluted what spills occurred, oil and gas activist Dave Devanney of Battlement Mesa said he shares the concerns of Front Range residents about what happened there.
“Any time you have volatile organic compounds and … chemicals in the waterways, that’s an issue. No matter how much it’s diluted it’s still there, and I think it’s something that the oil and gas conservation commission should be taking a look at and ensuring that there’s adequate protections for future oil and gas development at or near water sources.”
He noted last winter’s natural gas liquids leak from a pipeline leaving a Williams gas processing plant outside Parachute. Contamination reached Parachute Creek and threatened the Colorado River.
“We don’t want to see that happen again,” he said.
Devanney believes preventing such problems means having the oil and gas commission take up the issue of riparian setbacks, which were unfinished business from its comprehensive 2008 rules rewrite, except for setbacks it established to protect municipal water supplies.
“The events of the last few weeks on the Front Range demonstrate that it’s an important topic that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later,” Devanney said.
Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado, agrees.
“I mean, this is just an unfinished topic of conversation,” he said. “… If this isn’t a wake-up call to take a look at those issues I don’t know what would be.”
Noble Energy, which like Encana also has operations in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin, reported four floodwater-related releases totaling about 9,000 gallons. But it also points to several things it believes minimized flood-related damage, including proactive emergency response training of more than 150 workers on the Front Range, and automatic technology that let it shut in 85 percent of its wells remotely, with almost all the rest being manually shut in by the time the water reached flood level.
“Overall, our equipment held up amazingly well and was a testament to our engineering and facility design,” the company said in an emailed response to inquiries for this story.
“… We believe we can successfully operate in the flood plain, as proven by this event. We are in the process of evaluating our operations in and around flood plains, and we’re working with the state of Colorado and all stakeholders on how we can improve future preparedness. We will use lessons learned to create new best management practices in those areas.”
WELL DAMAGE SLIGHT
Gilbert said the industry’s proactive effort to shut in wells ahead of the flooding, oftentimes through automated means, was a significant action because it was designed to ensure fluids aren’t moving up wells if the wells are damaged.
Of note was that damage to wells in general was relatively slight compared to the more significant tank damage that occurred, he said. And like Encana, the state has noticed the extra protection that metal fences or berms seemed to provide to tanks and other infrastructure.
“We will take a look at that in more detail and talk to everybody to find what their experiences were as well with that,” he said.
He said something else of note applied to tank batteries in wetlands. State rules require them to be tied down, but companies do so in different ways, some “relatively flimsy,” he said.
“We have noticed some of those ways have held better than others,” he said.
The degree to which it will be left to companies to apply lessons learned as they see fit, as opposed to being required to do so by state rules, is likely to be one of the decisions oil and gas regulators will be left to make.
“Why wouldn’t we require best practices? Why shouldn’t we hold the oil and gas industry to the highest possible standard?” Conservation Colorado’s Maysmith said. “I think the answer is, we should.”
Maysmith also has been critical of the state for not requiring rather than requesting information from the industry pertaining to the status of facilities potentially impacted by flooding. But Gilbert said it hasn’t mattered whether the state asked or required: “The industry is giving us the information we’re asking for.”
Mitsch Bush, who sits on the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, credited both the oil and gas commission staff and the industry for their post-flooding responses, and said it’s still too soon to know what regulatory or other changes should occur due to what the flooding has taught the state.
“I don’t want to be jumping to any conclusions. … Let’s get all the input from all the sides on what happened and get some technical assessment from (the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) and COGCC and really understand the impacts,” she said.
The flooding only added to the highly contentious debate over oil and gas development on the Front Range, but Encana’s Hock believes a lot of the more strident voices critical of the industry as it pertains to flood impacts “are opposed to oil and gas whether there’s a flood or not. So that really didn’t change anything.”
For Maysmith, things such as the flooding and the Parachute Creek contamination demonstrate the need to protect an important natural resource in the West.
“We’ve got to be asking ourselves, are we doing all we can to protect our water sources?” he said.
He worries when he sees well pads close to creeks, and knows tanks can be knocked over or other things can cause leaks and benzene and other toxic substances to reach waterways.
“That says we have a problem. That says we don’t have this figured out,” he said.