Interactive map pinpoints 4,900 Colorado oil, gas spills since 2000

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DENVER — As large scale oil spills off the coast of the U.S. continue to decrease, the sort of smaller-scale inland oil and gas spills that are far less likely to make headlines — and in some cases, unlikely to even get reported — are on the rise.

This increase is being reported by Environment & Energy Publishing (E&E), a nonpartisan media company in Washington, D.C. that covers environmental and energy policy and markets.

Despite having not received comprehensive data from North Dakota, one of the largest natural gas-producing states in the country, E&E reported the U.S. oil and gas industry averaged about 20 oil or gas spills a day in 2013, which is an increase of about 18 percent from 2012.

Why is some of the data from North Dakota missing? According to the Associated Press, nearly 300 oil spills and 750 “oil field incidents” that occurred in the state since January 2012 went unreported.

Why did those spills go unreported? Because North Dakota regulators are not required to report all oil spills under state law, the AP reported.

The same goes for Colorado, according to another report recently released by the Center for Western Priorities (CWP). Though the organization is also nonpartisan, its stated goal is to “ensure that Western land and resources are being used responsibly.”

As part of a comprehensive project that includes an interactive map of all oil and gas spills in both Colorado and New Mexico from 2000 to 2013, the CWP noted that the data shows far more spills in New Mexico (10,300) than Colorado (4,900) in large part because New Mexico has tougher regulations about the reporting of spills.

“For example, oil and gas companies in New Mexico are required to report the unauthorized release of natural gas in significant quantities,” the CWP wrote in a press release. “They are not required to do so in Colorado.”

Spills in Colorado tended to cluster in areas that have seen a large boost in drilling over the past two decades — specifically rural parts of Weld, Garfield, La Plata and Las Animas counties. However, more residential counties like Arapahoe, Adams, Boulder and Larimer were not exempt.

In 2013 specifically, there were 531 total spills of either oil, brine, drilling water or other types of chemicals in Colorado. While that’s a significant rise from the 398 spills reported in 2012, it’s only an average of 1.47 spills a day, which is far below the national average. And of the spills that have been reported thus far in 2014 (156), only nine have caused and ground or surface water contamination, according to CWP data.

No two oil and gas spills are alike, either. In 2011 in neighboring Arapahoe and Adams counties, there were spills ranging from 42 to 6,258 gallons. According to CWP policy director Greg Zimmerman, all spills above 5 barrels, which is about 210 gallons, must be reported. And due to legislation that was new as of 2014, a release of 1 barrel outside of containment must now also be reported in Colorado.

While some may believe the increase in Colorado oil and gas spills from 2012 to 2013 is simply an unavoidable byproduct of a boom in oil and gas drilling, Zimmerman isn’t so sure.

“Yes, drilling is high in Colorado, but it’s not at an all-time high,” he said. “In fact, there was more drilling in 2008 than there was in 2013.”

Considering Colorado had 140 fewer spills in 2008, Zimmerman said there appears to be no clear reason why the state saw more spills in 2013.

But one thing does appear to be clear: The number of oil and gas spills in Colorado has increased almost every year since 2000, and the pace set thus far in 2014 doesn’t indicate any significant reductions.

Whether the spills expose the environment to 42 gallons of toxic materials or 10,000, each has the potential to cause damage, Zimmerman said. And the fact that Colorado is averaging more than one of these spills each “isn’t cutting it.”

“These numbers shine a spotlight on the oil and gas industry’s significant spill problem,” Zimmerman said. “Part of responsible energy development is holding companies to the highest standards and minimizing the release of toxic materials onto land and into water.”

RELATED: Click for more on the CWP oil and gas spill data


  • Native

    All this over the past 7,874,400 min. Hey Will, how about you share with everyone how much Mag Chloride has been dumped on the Colorado roads in the last 13 years. How much of that is cleaned up? Thats public information too. You guys are completely bias in your reporting. Why do you do it?

    • Will C. Holden

      Hi there, Native. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to write. I’m sorry you were disappointed in the manner in which the story in question was presented. You are certainly free to form your own opinions, but perhaps by taking some time to thoroughly explain the decision-making process behind the story, we can shed some light on the finished product.

      We are very aware how hot button an issue drilling and/or fracking has become in Colorado. If we didn’t, well, we have proponents and opponents of the issue write in every time we produce a story on the subject to remind us. Regardless of how many steps we take to cover all of these stories from multiple perspectives, there always seems to be at least one disappointed audience member who claims we didn’t cover the story as comprehensively as he or she would have liked. You seem to fall into that camp.

      Unfortunately for folks on either end of this issue, we as journalists have our audience to consider, as well as both sides of a story. And our audience tends to fall in the middle on most issues, especially contentious ones such as this. What’s more, our audience also tends to have difficulty dissecting comprehensive stories that are heavy on technical jargon, which stories on drilling and fracking tend to be. Sure, we could have written a sweeping, complicated, long-winded story on both oil and gas spills, the response to such spills (and the amount of magnesium chloride spilled on Colorado roads, to boot), but there is a good chance we would have lost a great deal of our audience halfway through the story. In that scenario, there is also a good chance that one side of the issue would still be getting under-served.

      Furthermore, due to the fact that two of our oil and gas contacts declined to comment on the CWP map, we had to make an effort to present a balanced telling of this story without both sides on the record. We made an effort to do that by mentioning how many fewer daily spills there are in Colorado compared to the national average (1 to 20, as was notated in the 10th paragraph of the story). We mentioned how small a percentage of spills actually impact water supplies (just nine of 156 spills have done so in 2014, as was notated in the 10th paragraph of the story). We even went so far as to click on hundreds of individual spills within the interactive CWP map, finding some of the 4,900 spills over the last 13 years have be relatively miniscule (as little as the 42-gallon spill reported in Arapahoe County in 2011, as was notated in the 11th paragraph of the story).

      There’s also the fact that those three points, all of which could be considered credits to the Colorado oil and gas industry, were mentioned before the three points that could be considered slights — those points being that Colorado saw fewer spills in 2008 than 2013 despite the fact that there was more drilling in 2008 (that was mentioned in the 12th paragraph), Greg Zimmerman, the head of an environmentalist organization (his organization was identified as such in sixth paragraph), saying that he believes more than one spill a day “isn’t cutting it” (that was mentioned in the 16th paragraph) and the fact that the number of oil and gas spills in the state has steadily risen almost every year since 2000 (that was notated in the 15th paragraph).

      So though you may disagree with us on how balanced this story may or may not be, we tend to believe the facts about it suggest that it is very impartial. Instead of a biased story, we see a story that presented three points that oil and gas proponents could applaud and three points that the industry’s opponents could point to as areas of concern.

      Thanks once more for reading and for taking the time to write, Steve. We sincerely hope this detailed explanation about the editorial process behind this story was helpful, and we hope you feel free to bring us any and all of your questions, comments or concerns in the future. We will do our best to respond if/when we see fit.

      Will C. Holden

      WILL C. HOLDEN /
      Senior Editor, Digital Content
      Office: 303.566.7585

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