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Local News

Oil and Gas-Related Spills Increased 16% in Colorado in 2022, Report Finds

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by Chase Woodruff, Colorado Newsline

A report from a Denver-based environmental group shows that Colorado’s oil and gas industry is trending in the wrong direction on drilling-related spills.

The Center for Western Priorities’ annual Western Oil and Gas Spills Tracker report counted 473 spills reported by operators to state regulators in 2022, a 16% jump from 2021. It was the second year in a row that that figure has risen, as drillers continue to rebound from the sharp decline in production that followed the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

“Oil and gas companies in both New Mexico and Colorado appear to be polluting more than ever, while posting record profits,” Kate Groetzinger, the Center for Western Priorities’ communications manager and the report’s author, said in a statement. “The number of drilling-related spills and amount of methane wasted by the oil and gas industry should be going down each year, not up.”

Colorado producers pumped over 157 million barrels of crude oil in 2022, according to data released last month by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s a slight uptick from 2021, but still well below the state’s peak production of over 192 million barrels in 2019.

Most of the material spilled by producers in Colorado and other Western states, the report found, is “produced water” — the muddy, brackish byproduct of oil and gas extraction, often as a result of hydraulic fracturing. Produced water may contain a wide variety of contaminants. Reported volumes of produced water spills were up 163% in Colorado in 2022, which “could indicate an increase in fracking activity,” the analysis said.

“The fact that drilling-related spills have increased in Colorado while production has remained level is troubling, especially in a state that prides itself on its recently-enacted oil and gas reforms,” Groetzinger said.

Colorado regulators have enacted a sweeping set of changes to oil and gas rules in the wake of landmark environmental legislation passed by Democratic lawmakers in 2019, including increased setback distances between new wells and buildings and more authority for local governments to restrict drilling sites. Environmental advocates, however, say the state still isn’t doing enough to address the “cumulative impacts” of its nearly 49,000 active oil and gas wells.

Five companies were responsible for nearly half of Colorado’s oil and gas spills in 2022, the Center for Western Priorities report found. They include operators controlled by the state’s largest producers, including Occidental Petroleum and PDC Energy, as well as troubled producers like K.P. Kauffman.

A Denver-based operator of over 1,200 wells statewide, K.P. Kauffman has been the target of an escalating series of enforcement actions by state regulators over its failure to clean up its spills and comply with environmental rules. In February, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission ordered K.P. Kauffman to shut down its wells and halt sales of oil and gas for at least six months, but the company has sued the agency over that decision.

This story was written by Chase Woodruff, an investigative reporter at the Colorado Newsline, where this story first appeared.

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.