At about 11 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 17, a liquid began shooting 40 to 50 feet into the air at a natural gas pipeline in Windsor.
Neighbors concerned about recent reports of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in the area took photos of the spill at 32744 Weld County Road 13. The pictures show the liquid pouring into the street and down a roadside ditch that leads to the Cache La Poudre River only two-tenths of a mile away, just past the Frank State Wildlife Area.
But Roz Elliott, spokesperson for DCP Midstream, told Boulder Weekly that the company was simply testing the integrity of an out-of-service pipeline by shooting water into it at a high pressure, to make sure it could withstand such pressures if it were brought back into service. She says the pipe “yielded,” or, in layman’s terms, sprung a leak. According to Elliott, even though it was only water and no remediation is required, the spill exceeded five gallons, so the company reported it to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) as required.
While the Windsor gusher may have been only water, spills of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) fluid and other liquids are not as uncommon as one might think.
In Boulder County alone, which is not exactly a hotbed of drilling activity compared to neighboring Weld County, there were 13 spills self-reported by oil and gas companies in 2010 and 2011.
According to COGCC records, all but one were reported by Noble Energy Production, and one of those spills occurred on open space land that has a county conservation easement. (Encana Oil and Gas reported one spill as well during that period.)
A open space spill, which occurred on Sept. 22 at the northwest corner of Highway 52 and East County Line Road, was an old well that was being eyed for an upgrade, according to Noble spokesperson Stephen Flaherty. He says the company took samples and found no groundwater contamination, even though the initial report submitted to the COGCC said the opposite. Flaherty described the incident as discovery of a past leak, not an active spill, and he said most of the other 12 releases were due to “historical issues” as well.
“All of these are relatively minor,” he told Boulder Weekly, adding that none of them were a result of active drilling. “The spills are not related to hydraulic fracturing.”
The one exception, Flaherty says, was a January 2010 spill in which a worker failed to close a valve.
When asked why Noble reported so many more spills than any other company, Flaherty didn’t rule out the possibility that Noble has a much higher number of wells in the county than any other entity, but he couldn’t give specific numbers.
He did say, however, that the company is aggressive about reporting every spill. Flaherty stopped short of saying that other operators may not be as vigilant about self-reporting.
“I won’t speak for other companies, I can just tell you that internally, management has a very strict policy that we report everything to the COGCC,” he says. “We spill coffee on a site, we report it.”
Bob Chesson of the COGCC, an environmental protection specialist who receives reports of spills in northeastern Colorado, claims that oil and gas companies are very careful to avoid spills, because they can drain profits.
“It costs them money to do it, and they don’t want to do it any more than they have to,” Chesson says. “The process is closely monitored by the companies because it’s expensive.”
“We’re all very vigilant about reporting our spills,” says Wendy Wiedenbeck, community relations advisor for Encana. “It costs time and money to clean those up, but that’s not the motivation. The motivation is it’s not good for business and not good for the environment.”
Chesson agrees that operators are good about reporting their spills to the state.
“They’re held to the same standards as any industrial activity is in the state of Colorado,” Chesson explains. “We do get a lot of spill reports, spills are self-reported. If we find that an operator is not reporting spills, they’re liable for all sorts of enforcement issues, and they don’t want to do that.”
After a spill is reported, he says, the operator must present a remediation plan for the COGCC’s approval if there is any contamination.
“We occasionally have a disagreement about what we think, but ultimately they have to do what we say, because we’re the ones that give them the agreement that no further action is necessary for remediation,” Chesson says.
“Human beings are fallible, so spills and releases sometimes occur,” says Dave Neslin, COGCC director.
But considering that there are about 46,000 active wells in Colorado, he says, the data shows that spills are infrequent. Neslin also notes that in the past year and a half, the state has assessed more than $1.6 million in penalties and violations associated with spills.
When asked whether some operators are more responsible about reporting spills than others, he told Boulder Weekly, “That’s not something I’ve investigated, so I don’t know. Overall, I’d say industry does a pretty good job of self-reporting.”