The number of spills reported by oil and gas producers to the state last year grew from 2018, and the same was the case in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, although spills in Mesa County declined slightly.
The Center for Western Priorities conservation group said Thursday that companies reported 636 spills in Colorado last year, a 7% increase from 2018. Weld County, which leads the state in drilling and production, also led in reported spills, accounting for more than half of them.
Garfield County, which ranks a distant second in the state in terms of drilling and production levels, likewise came in a distant second in reported spills, with 63, according to the group’s report.
The Center for Western Priorities got its spill information from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Some data available on the agency’s website Thursday differed slightly from the numbers the group reported but was generally consistent, putting total reported spills last year statewide at 639, and Garfield County spills at 62.
Garfield County had 45 spills in 2018. In Mesa County, 24 spills were reported in 2019, down from 27 the prior year, COGCC data shows. Rio Blanco County had 51 spills, up from 39 in 2018.
The Center for Western Priorities said 353 of last year’s spills involved “produced water,” a salty wastewater often laden with toxic chemicals. More than 28,500 barrels of produced water were spilled. A barrel is 42 gallons. Among other types of spills, a category of fluids the group described as “other” accounted for 23,585 barrels of fluid, and 169 spills involved a total of nearly 2,000 barrels of oil, the group said.
A COGCC spill analysis available on the agency’s website indicates that by volume, last year’s oil spills amounted to 0.001% of oil production for the year, and about 0.01% of produced water was spilled.
COGCC rules require companies to report spills of any size that threaten or impact waters of the state, homes, livestock or public byways. They also must report all spills involving a barrel or more of fluids outside berms or secondary containment, and all spills of five barrels or more.
The Center for Western Priorities said that eastern Colorado operator Noble Energy led companies statewide in reported spills last year, accounting for more than 10% of all spills. Terra Energy Partners, a leader in the local Piceance Basin in terms of production and well counts, ranked fifth among companies for spills, with 4.7% of all spills.
Most of last year’s spills in Mesa County involved Laramie Energy, the main company that has drilled in the county in recent years.
The Center for Western Priorities says 62% of reported spills in the state last year were within 1,500 feet of a building, nearly half were within 1,000 feet of surface water and 81% were within a mile of a water well.
“With their ‘energy dominance’ agenda, the Trump administration is trying to ramp up drilling across the West. Our analysis shows the continued impact of drilling on our land, water, and communities,” Jesse Prentice-Dunn, policy director at the Center for Western Priorities, said in a news release. “With the number of reported spills increasing in Colorado, there is clearly a need for sustained enforcement of public health and environmental safeguards throughout the drilling process.”
Reported spills in Colorado peaked at 786 in 2014, according to state data going back to 1999. Chelsie Miera, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, noted that state lawmakers in 2013 strengthened spill reporting requirements and the COGCC months later further tightened those requirements. Previous spill reporting thresholds varied for different spills from 5 barrels to 20 barrels.
Miera said her group and the Colorado Oil and Gas Association supported the more rigorous reporting requirements. Those requirements, combined with first-in-the-nation groundwater monitoring and baseline requirements the state established in 2012, “provide strong protections for Colorado’s water,” Miera said.
“Our oil and natural gas operators throughout the state and in the Piceance Basin are continually working to operate at the highest level,” she said.
She said a number of practices and precautions are employed to guard against spills and keep them from reaching groundwater.
“The comprehensive mitigation efforts in place ensure there is no impact to soil or water regardless of the location’s proximity to nearby homes or water sources,” Miera said. “If a spill does occur outside of containment, operators use strong and highly regulated remediation practices to be sure no lasting impact to soil or water occurs.”
Two of last year’s more significant local spills came early in the year. A Williams natural gas pipeline rupture north of Parachute resulted in benzene briefly contaminating Parachute Creek in amounts exceeding COGCC limits, and a produced-water spill involving a Caerus Oil and Gas pipeline west of Parachute led to contaminants reaching surface water in a gravel pit by the Colorado River.