Flood conditions overwhelm state oil-and-gas regulators

With fracking gear damaged and toppled across the flood zone, Colorado’s small team of drilling inspectors is relying on the industry to assess threats to public safety

Flood conditions overwhelm state oil-and-gas regulators

Intact oil and gas wells are alike. Damaged oil and gas wells are each damaged in their own way.

Weld County, Colorado, is host to a boom in oil and gas drilling. Wells are everywhere. There are 20,554 active wells in Weld. There are 50,000 wells in all of Colorado.

Right now the state is in the beginning stages of recovering from a seriously improbable and violent storm that inundated 4,500 miles of the northern Front Range, toppling bridges, crumbing highways and washing away homes and businesses. According to Colorado’s Office of Emergency Management, the death toll has risen to eight, nearly 650 people remain unaccounted for, and 21 helicopters from the Colorado and Wyoming National Guard continue to ferry people away from devastated and isolated towns and hamlets. There is also at least one verified leaking oil pipeline in Weld County.

If you troll social media, you’ll have seen damage to well sites recorded by citizen groups in startling pictures.

Regulators certainly saw them.

 At a commission hearing Monday of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), a division of the Department and Natural Resources,  Tisha Schuller, chief executive of industry trade group Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) was called in to deliver a status brief on the state of Front Range oil and gas infrastructure in the wake of the floods. She said citizen reports of damage need to be accompanied by better documentation. Oil and gas offices need specific location details in order to get experts to the site.

“Things like empty tanks can cause a lot of confusion and concern,” Schuller said. She didn’t have a lot of information. She confirmed that two empty tanks were taking on flood water and that other tanks certainly had been damaged.

Natural-gas fracking sites, the kind that dot the roadsides, farm fields and backyards of the region, contain large metal drums that hold oil and so-called produced water, or water mixed with chemicals from drilling and its byproducts. Gas pipes snake around the sites and, when they’re working, automatically flare off gas that rises from deep below the surface.  One site can contain as many as ten or fifteen drums or as few as two or three.

“As far as we know, all the wells that have been affected by the floods have been shut in,” Schuller said.

She explained that at least two companies are conducting aerial surveys. She said some sites have been reached by boat. The degraded status of roads and bridges made checking on the wells difficult.

In an email, the EPA’s Richard Mylott wrote something similar: “Given access challenges and the fact that responders in many areas are still focused on securing life and property, it’s too early to characterize impacts.”

For activists and residents in areas heavily hit by the flood and where wells are sited near water sources, the statements are not reassuring.

“I don’t know what the county or state are doing to mitigate the damage. Frankly, I don’t think they can get to the sites that are being impacted right now,” said Carl Erikson, a Greeley resident who posted pictures to a Weld Air and Water website of industry tanks toppled and reeling in rushing water. Erikson is worried the tanks could have ruptured a gas pipe and that gas and chemicals are flowing into the land and water.

“I haven’t heard anything from COGCC. They have been, I would say, strangely quiet since the flooding started. So, it’s kind of scary.”

Officials at the hearing announced that by the end of August  COGCC had performed 15,000 well inspections, which is impressive, given the Commission employs only 18 field inspectors. It fell to Schuller’s industry group, COGA, to debrief the state on the situation on the ground in the flood zone. Commission Director Matt Lepore asked COGA to send regular updates. It was clear that the state commission simply lacks the personnel to oversee an industry working over 50,000 drill sites.

“Initially, the agency is using GIS mapping to identify oil and gas locations within flooded areas of the South Platte River and its tributaries, and will work to determine which locations have been affected,” COGCC  reported in a press statement. The Commission will form teams to focus on locations north and south of the South Platte River to perform field inspections.

“They’re just overwhelmed – more than overwhelmed,” said Dr. Kenneth Carlson, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Colorado State University (CSU) who has worked with Noble Energy to centralize water reuse. “If you ask environmental activists, they would say COGCC works for industry. If you ask industry about COGCC, they just roll their eyes, and talk about how unreasonable they are.”

Neil Grigg, professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at CSU, drew a comparison to the management of roads to show the difference between the COGCC and other government agencies responding to heavily damaged infrastructure.

“When it comes to roads and bridges and all that, you have a coordinated way to go about maintaining them with [the Colorado Department of Transportation],” he said, pointing out that the department works with local and state officials. “With oil and gas, it’s a different situation, because you have a lot of operators out there, and it’s going to be difficult to coordinate.”

One of the many tragedies of the floods is that even though the deluge came during national preparedness month, Colorado’s multibillion dollar oil-and-gas industry seemed as caught off guard as homeowners who saw idyllic neighborhood creeks transform into rushing rivers. Despite advanced technology, few seemed to have anticipated anything like the storm. With flood gauges clocking the South Platte River as high as 18 feet, and the unprecedented 17.17 inches of rain that fell over six days in Boulder, citizens already wary of fracking were alarmed to see fast-moving flood water tearing into and toppling the fracking tanks.

 “To me, these have to be inspected site by site — not generalizations that this is going to happen or that’s going to happen. It’s not clear that this is a significant source of contamination, but it’s a hazardous situation,” Carlson said. “The pictures of tanks floating — this would be a concern. If it broke away, it wouldn’t just leak from the bottom — it should have a shut-off valve. Could those fail? They could fail. There are 100 different ways that contamination could occur. I think this falls into the category of: We don’t know.”

Both Carlson and Grigg indicated that another real environmental and regulatory hazard comes from pipelines, especially those that cross streams or river beds. The floods are putting an unprecedented amount of physical pressure the river bottoms and opening new channels.

“I’d keep my eye on the South Platte,” Grigg said.

Though no one could have expected this to happen, regulators should keep in mind the devastation for planning rules in the future.

“I think that everybody is in a state of assessment and recovery,” Carlson said.

“I think we could see an outcome [from the flooding] where the COGCC says: Do we need additional failsafes for this type of hydrologic event?”

[ Top image of lolling frack tank in Evans off of 34th St. Photo: Carl Erickson

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About the Author

Shelby Kinney-Lang

Has worked for media nonprofit Free Press and interned at The Nation. He studied at UMass Amherst and at Oxford. He's from Laramie, Wyoming.
skinneylang@coloradoindependent.com | @ShelbKL

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