Spills of oil, gas fall for second year amid slowdown in drilling

Spills related to oil and gas development have fallen for a second straight year in Colorado, reflecting the diminished amount of drilling that has occurred, according to a report by the group Center for Western Priorities.

The conservation group reports that 509 spills were reported by companies to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission last year, down from 615 the previous year. The group, using COGCC data, previously has said that 712 spills were reported in 2014.

By far the largest number of reported spills last year, 246, occurred in Weld County, where drilling activity has predominated in recent years. Las Animas had the second-highest amount, 51, and Garfield was third, at 46, just ahead of Rio Blanco with 45.

Mesa County had 11 reported spills last year.

Garfield County’s spill count is down from 76 in 2015.

Statewide drilling activity has fallen over the last two years. Drilling began on 2,239 wells in 2014, 1,470 in 2015 and 886 for the first 11 months of last year (year-end data wasn’t immediately available Monday). While Garfield County continues to be the second-most active county in the state for drilling, it had only 131 well starts for the first 11 months of last year compared to 175 for all of 2015.

“I do think it is tracking with the decrease in production and exploration,” Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director at the Center for Western Priorities, said of the decline in spill numbers.

He said he’ll be watching to see what happens this year as drilling levels are expected to pick up again.

The group said 58 of the spills reported last year impacted groundwater, and four impacted surface water. More than a fifth happened within 1,000 feet of occupied buildings. More than four-fifths occurred on private land.

A total of 257 spills involved produced water. Another 175 involved oil or condensate, and the rest consisted of drilling or flowback fluid or other substances, the group said.

Noble Energy, a major Colorado energy developer, led companies in reported spills, with 80, followed by Kerr McGee (69), Pioneer Natural Resources USA (38), Chevron USA (31) and PDC Energy (29).

Terra Energy Partners, which has the most wells in northwest Colorado’s Piceance Basin, ranked eighth, with 16 spills reported.

“Chevron aggressively manages the risk of spills through a rigorous ongoing asset integrity program wherever we operate,” Chevron said in a statement Monday. “For example, Chevron has undertaken a comprehensive, multi-year, multi-million-dollar project to streamline and upgrade facilities and systems at our largest Colorado asset in Rangely. The program will continue through 2018. To date, approximately 11 miles of pipes have been removed from service.”

Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said Monday the department has to be careful in making any definitive statements about why spill numbers rise or fall, but it’s probably safe to say lower production volumes play a role in the decline.

“COGCC also believes a dedicated and expanded inspection team and strong enforcement and penalties that we’ve seen in recent years (have) an impact.

“When comparing overall spill numbers year-to-year, it is important to note the rules approved in 2013 lowered the threshold for reporting a spill — a change that would lead one to believe that spill totals would be inclined to rise.”

Among the rule changes, companies had to begin reporting, within 24 hours, any spill of more than one barrel that occurs outside secondary containment such as metal or earthern berms. A barrel is 42 gallons.

The previous minimum spill reporting requirement was five barrels, except in the case of spills any size that impact or threaten to impact water, surface water supply areas, occupied structures or livestock, which require reporting within 24 hours.

The 712 spills reported in 2014 may have reflected those tightened requirements, as well as the higher drilling activity at the time.

David Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said that the Center for Western Priorities “is funded by people whose goal is to inhibit natural gas drilling. And while their facade and fancy website attempts to do just that, western Colorado’s energy companies will continue working to improve operations using technology and training to reduce spills now and in the future.”

Prentice-Dunn said drilling will continue to be an important part of the state’s economy, but the spills are another reminder of the risks associated with oil and gas development.

He said he’s encouraged by the increased enforcement efforts of the state, and he praised Colorado for requiring reporting of more spill-related data than states such as Wyoming and New Mexico do. For example, those states don’t require reporting of the proximity of spills to homes, livestock and water.

“I think it’s really helpful for people living near development,” he said of Colorado’s data.

“… Ensuring that people who live nearby oil and gas development have access to this kind of data and know that people are looking out for them, I think that’s critical in terms of trying to forgo really the worst impacts of oil and gas development,” Prentice-Dunn said.


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