Oil spills not always the gushers you see on TV

Windsor Now | Sharon Dunn

May 11, 2013
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With a county as large as Weld, filled now with more than 20,000 wells all being operated by humans, there’s bound to be mishaps, screw ups and just plain mistakes — some that could even turn into a disaster — but most spills are cleaned up as quickly as the liquid falls.

Already this year, 59 spills and “releases” have been reported at well sites and oil and gas operations throughout the county, representing more than half of the spills statewide. Of course, 90 percent of the drilling throughout the state is occurring in Weld.

Easily more than 1,300 barrels of oil, 115 barrels of drilling mud, and 3,000 barrels of produced well water have hit the ground at various well sites throughout Weld since the beginning of this year, according to spill release reports to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The most notable spill occurred west of Windsor in February, when more than 2,000 barrels of fracking water spewed for 30 hours after equipment broke down on a workover rig.

But officials say though those attention-grabbing spills do happen, they’re not indicative of business as usual.

Most spills and releases are caused by equipment failure and human error. And some are just freak accidents. When they happen, clean up begins immediately.

“A lot of them are smaller spills, they don’t amount to much,” said Tommy Holton , a member of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and the mayor of Fort Lupton, which is benefitting greatly from the oil and gas industry. “Most take care of it immediately. They don’t want confrontations with the oil and gas commission. The other ones that don’t, we need to hammer them hard.”

He added, “Then we have the odd accident regardless. I think they’re diligent on safety, they’re all well aware of anti-fracking groups, anti-oil groups,” at the ready to hold their feet to the fire for any kind of environmental damage.

Weld’s oil spills this year have run the gamut of a half barrel at the low end to 318 barrels at the top. Most spills are less than 50 barrels, but there are other “releases” that have gone on so long, the amount of oil lost is a big unknown. Fracking water spills are more common and also range between extremes of 2 barrels on up to the Windsor well’s 2,350-barrel loss.

State law requires oil and gas companies to report spills of any kind over 5 barrels within 24 hours, and begin clean up immediately. Many spills are contained within lined berms or drilling pads, which prevent soil and groundwater contamination to begin with.

Seldom are companies fined.

“For the most part, companies take it very seriously. They don’t want spills,” said Thom Kerr , permitting manager at the COGCC in Denver. “It doesn’t help them; it doesn’t do any good. But that’s not necessarily all companies. A lot will just try to throw some dirt over it and hide it. When we find those, those guys are the ones we do fine.”

The spill in Windsor, in which equipment broke during operations, is not the kind of headline those companies want. The COGCC didn’t find PDC did anything egregious in the spill, and levied no fines.

But those keeping watch of the environment say not all companies are focused on safety, and there needs to be a keen watch.

“Some of the bigger companies do take it fairly seriously, and others get by with as little as possible,” said Bruce Baizel, with the Oil and Gas Accountability Project in Durango, which monitors oil and gas activity in a variety of states. “On the whole, they’re in the business of producing — not in the business of environmental compliance. There’s always pressure to get it done fast and cut corners. There’s a lot of room for improvement.”

So far this year, Noble Energy, the largest driller in Weld County, has reported 21 spills at its sites; Anadarko, the No. 2 driller, had 17 spills; PDC reported eight; Bonanza Creek reported six; Encana has reported two and EOG Resources has reported one.

Of the 59 reported so far, 28 percent involved human error; 61 percent involved equipment failure, and 10 percent were called “historical release,” which occurs when crews find leaks and spills during routine maintenance of tank batteries or wellheads.

Company officials say they work hard to contain all the failures, but not all can be avoided. When spills and releases do occur, crews are sent to vacuum up anything released, dredge and remove impacted soil, and remove impacted water.

Batteries and drilling sites are lined and bermed to contain any possible spills as much as possible. Companies are taking their measures a step further by installing remote sensors to detect when equipment fails, and metal fencing to help contain any potential problems.

“Some examples of our efforts to continuously improve include the installation of synthetic geotextile/bentonite barrier liners under all of our new tank batteries,” reported Robin Olsen , a spokeswoman for Anadarko in an email response to questions.

She said the company is adding 24/7 remote monitoring, flowline-testing and facility-inspection programs, and conducts ongoing spill prevention, reporting and response training for all field employees.

The human error part of it is the big unknown.

Of Bonanza Creek’s six spills this year, for example, five were labeled human error, mostly employees forgetting to turn off valves.

“We’ve done some retraining of folks, we have reassigned some folks, and a couple were terminations,” Ryan Zorn, vice president of finance for Bonanza, said of this year’s spills. “We take a pretty hard line on it.

“Really, you are very reliant on human capital out there,” he said. “We have a lot of guys in the field and we’re constantly driving processes with them, to be diligent. … The whole area is short on personnel, so we’re having to bring a lot of new folks in and get them trained as best we can.”

With the oil field in Weld being 40 years old, equipment is aging and old wells could become problematic.

Baizel of the Accountability Project said age will indeed start catching up, and potentially showing up in water well testing nearby near drilling sites, which is a new requirement by the state.

“In some of the old wells that were vertical, not the new ones that are horizontal, there is old cement, if they’ve been plugged,” Baizel said. “Cement breaks down over time, and you’ll start to see deterioration. You figure they’re getting to their life span, so you will see more frequent breakdowns.”

He said he’d like to see companies being required to check for abandoned and plugged wells before they begin drilling.

“And test those and make sure they’re maintaining their integrity,” Baizel said. “We’ll have a couple of bad situations that will force the state to require that.”

Oil and gas is a risky business, Zorn of Bonanza Creek said. And as long as it booms — and face it, it will, given America’s and the world’s need for energy — continual improvement has to be a part of any operation.

Tisha Schuller , president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, agrees.

“In any area where there’s a 100-year history of oil and gas, there’s this continual process of upgrading, so equipment tanks, lines are always having to be replaced. … We do want to see the upgrades happening, and want to see they’re addressed appropriately,” Schuller said. “The real story is, are we upgrading equipment? Are we improving practices? And when incidents do happen, are we responding in the most effective and proactive way? You’ll see continued improvement forever because it’s something inherent to the industry.”

Tagged with: spills, oil, colorado

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