‘11,000 homes, 200 miles of road, destroyed…You can’t plan for that’ — Tisha Schuller #COflood

Production fluids leak into surface water September 2013 -- Photo/The Denver Post
Production fluids leak into surface water September 2013 — Photo via The Denver Post

From The Denver Post (Mark Jaffe):

As floodwater started to rise Sept. 11, some oil and gas operators began shutting wells and securing facilities. It would be five days before state regulators announced their plans. “Did the state have a disaster plan for the oil and gas fields?” asked Bruce Baziel, energy program director of the environmental group Earthworks. “It was hard to tell.”

From the start, state oil and gas regulators were gathering information and passing it on to the incident commander overseeing disaster response, said Alan Gilbert, a Colorado Department of Natural Resources official. “That’s our role as a technical agency,” Gilbert said.

Throughout the weekend, oil companies were providing information on their operations to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. “Demands on us to be transparent were high,” said Tisha Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry group.

Yet as pictures of bubbling pipes, spouting wells and floating tanks began to appear on social media, fears rose about what was happening in the flooded oil fields.

On Sept. 16, as the flood covered parts of the oil-rich Denver-Julesburg Basin, additional steps to assess impacts were announced by the oil and gas commission staff. “We intend to compile an ongoing spreadsheet with the status of operations,” said Matt Lepore, executive director of the commission.

Regulations require operators to report spills, but for the rest Lepore asked for voluntary cooperation of the industry on assessing the status of all wells. “In the middle of a disaster, it strikes me that this ought to have been required,” said Peter May-smith, executive director of Conservation Colorado. “If it wasn’t required by regulation, the governor should have issued an executive order,” May-smith said.

The steps announced were “ad hoc,” but the commission had been monitoring the situation, DNR’s Gilbert said. “We are going to have a formal review,” Gilbert said. “We’ll look at what worked and what didn’t work.”

Within days, the commission had about 18 inspectors in the field checking sites. The commission used its mapping capabilities to identify wells and facilities in floodplains and focus on those. About 1,500 wells were identified in the floodplains of the South Platte and other Front Range rivers, Gilbert said.

“For years, conservation groups have pressed for limited drilling in floodplains, and the state and the industry have fought it,” said Gary Wockner, Colorado program director for Clean Water Action. “Part of this wasn’t a natural disaster but a man-made disaster,” Wockner said.

The industry estimated that at the height of the flooding, 1 ,900 wells were shut in — there are more than 20,000 wells in the basin.

State inspectors have counted 14 “notable releases,” primarily from overturned or damaged tanks, accounting for 1,042 barrels (43,764 gallons) of petroleum products. There also were 13 releases of produced water — which contains well impurities — totaling 430 barrels (18,060 gallons), according to the state.

“That’s thousands of gallons of pollutants poisoning our waterways,” Wockner said. “It isn’t something to be dismissed.”

By Thursday, inspectors had covered 90 percent of the wells and facilities in the floodplains, Gilbert said.

“When you have an industrial activity of this scale, you need clear contingency plans,” said Conservation Colorado’s May-smith. “A clear plan in advance.”

In their review, state officials will evaluate how effective the regulations were in preventing flood spills and whether reporting was adequate and the emergency plans adequate, Gilbert said. Could that lead to new rules or plans? “That is what we are going to look at,” Gilbert said.

Still, in the face of a 500-year flood , state and industry officials contended the performance was good.

“It was chaos — 11,000 homes, 200 miles of road, destroyed,” the Oil and Gas Association’s Schuller said. “You can’t plan for that. You just have to be flexible and responsive.”

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

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