Garfield County records fewest oil and gas spills in 10 years |

Garfield County records fewest oil and gas spills in 10 years

Ryan Summerlin

Reported oil and gas spills in Garfield County were at their lowest in more than 10 years in 2016, likely because of the plummet in natural gas production in the Piceance Basin.

Last year, the county saw 47 spills or releases, according to data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Information System, maintained by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

That’s down from 90 in 2015 and the lowest since 2006.

According to COGIS, the highest number of recent spills came in 2010, when Garfield County saw 140 such incidents.

Spill materials include oil, condensate, produced water, flow back or “frac fluids,” exploration and production waste, drilling fluid and other kinds of waste.

Most spills last year involved produced water, and the next most common were spills of condensate. Of all the 2016 spills, 31 involved produced water, 15 involved condensate, two involved “exploration and production” waste, one involved oil, one involved “flow back” or “frac fluids” and none involved drilling fluid, according to COGIS data.

The exact amount of spilled material is difficult to pin down as operators often estimate their spills in broad ranges. For example, 16 of the spills last year are estimated to be anywhere between 5 and 100 barrels. Three of them are estimated to be more than 100 barrels.

Operators also reported seven spills that were “historical releases” of an unknown quantity.

This decrease in spills is notable even with the decline in production because spill reporting thresholds were lowered significantly in 2013, requiring operators to report smaller, and therefore more spills, Todd Hartman, COGCC spokesman, told the Post Independent via email.

Hartman noted that last year was also the lowest year for spills across the state since 2012.

It’s hard to ever say definitively what causes changes in spill numbers, he said.

“Surely lower production volumes may play a role in reducing spills. COGCC also has a strong inspection team in place in Garfield County, and we’d like to think its diligence and engagement with operators plays a role in reducing these numbers,” he said.

The reduction has been felt across Garfield County, with the county government forced to make due with a projected $17 million drop in 2017 of property tax revenue tied to natural gas production.

Other governments and organizations that rely on those tax dollars have been squeezed as well, such as the Garfield County Library District, which laid off eight employees and reduced library hours at the end of 2016 to handle the revenue drop.

Kent Jolley, a COGCC board member from Garfield County, wasn’t too surprised to hear about the low spill rate in Garfield County, given that drilling has also probably been at its lowest in 10 years.

Because many spills occur during drilling, that lack of activity likely partly accounts for the low number, he said.

While production of natural gas in Garfield County might be down, Weld County still has a lot going on, said Jolley.

Weld County just had one of its biggest production years in history in 2016. And though Weld County operators are primarily after oil, they produce natural gas, even as a byproduct, at similar rates as Garfield County.

While Weld County is producing natural gas at significant volumes, that suppresses the price of natural gas, said Jolley.

“I think it will be awhile before we see much [boost in] drilling activity around here. Until we create new, dependable markets, I’m not sure what the future holds for Garfield County,” he said.

In the meantime, storage supplies keep hitting historical highs, he said.

Jolley said the prospect of opening up the proposed Jordan Cove shipping terminal in Oregon to Piceance Basin operators via the Pacific Connector pipeline project is one bright spot. Other energy advocates have been hopeful that President Donald Trump’s fossil-fuel-friendly approach will mean a new life for the rejected project.

Jolley also gave credit to oil and gas operators in Garfield County for the reduction in spills. “I think they’re getting better all the time, though you still have human error. More and more controls are being put in place: The state’s putting regulations down, and companies are creating their own ways of doing better all the time.”

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