Colorado flooding disrupts oil and natural gas industry and damages drilling infrastructure

Drilling rig submerged in Colorado flood waters.


Update (Monday, Sept. 23): State regulators raised their tally of oil and gas storage tanks toppled in the flood to 24 and documented more spills Friday, Sept. 20, bringing the total to more 22,000 gallons of oil contaminating Colorado's South Platte River valley.

Anadarko Petroleum Corp. has confirmed that an additional 13,500 gallons (323 barrels) had spilled from an oil and gas tank farm along the St. Vrain River near Platteville. That's on top of the 5,225 gallons spilled from a damaged storage tank into the South Platte River near the town of Milliken that the oil company had also reported.

Approximately 18,725 gallons of condensate have spilled from the Anadarko sites, according to Matthew Allen, spokesman for the Denver office of the Environmental Protection Agency.

In the wake of Colorado’s recent widespread flooding events, disturbing reports of submerged drilling sites and damaged oil pipelines are giving weary residents another reason for concern.

The recent flooding in Colorado has severely disrupted oil and natural gas operations in the fossil fuel-rich region of eastern Colorado known as the Denver-Julesberg Basin. Hundreds of wells had to be idled as a result.

Photo: Ecoflight

At least 5,250 gallons of crude oil had spilled from an estimated 125 barrels into the flood-swollen South Platte river by Wednesday, Sept. 18. The County officials did not provide a precise location for the broken pipeline, but have said at least two other pipelines were compromised as they sagged in flood-saturated soils.

Photos and video footage from this region continue to surface of flooded fracking sites, toppled-over tanks, tanks floating in floodwaters leaking unknown fluid and scattered debris from drilling operations.

Residents have reported seeing “hundreds” of wells that were inundated and several condensate tanks (tanks that hold fracking site waste material) overturned or at odd angles. 

Latest reports from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association document nearly 1,900 oil and gas wells in flooded areas were shut down with 600 personnel inspecting and repairing sites. Representatives from Colorado’s oil and gas industry have remarked that fracking shouldn't be a concern with regards to the flooding. Operators have yet to reveal specific information about flood-damage incurred to oil and gas sites in low-lying flood areas.

Flooded well pad in Weld County. Photo: Ecoflight

As of Tuesday afternoon, Andarko Petroleum Corp. has shut down 600 wells and stopped drilling activity, Noble says it has shut down 10 percent of its wells in the region, Encana Oil & Gas has shut down nearly 400 of their wells and PDC Energy reports that it has shut down a little over 100 wells in the affected area.

The catastrophic flooding events that ravaged Colorado this past week served as an unfortunate wake-up call. While it appears that many operations took precautions to close or safeguard drilling sites in flood-affected areas, even the smallest margin for error can open the door for dangerous consequences.

Leaking oil barrel. Photo: Ecoflight

In order to mitigate drilling-related accidents like the ones that may have occurred in Colorado, it is imperative that regulators ensure oil and gas development is done responsibly, with increased oversight, especially on America’s public lands. This means anticipating the potential for natural events, like Colorado’s flood disaster, when permitting future development.

Many of America’s public lands are an important part of the nation’s energy security. Because of this, it is crucial that environmental precautions are applied when oil and gas development occurs on our public lands and that development does not happen in fragile wild areas.

“Doing it right” means protecting America’s air, water quality and wildlife habitats, as well as our communities. It also means keeping the oil and gas industry out of precious lands that are simply too wild to drill. The Wilderness Society has played a part in making sure that our most sensitive lands are set aside for conservation, while directing energy development towards low impact areas that do not pose a threat to sensitive areas and wildlife habitat.

Colorado residents: Here’s what you can do

Put safety first

At this time, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is urging everyone in Colorado to avoid contact with the water warning it could contain sewage or chemicals washed away from flooded homes, businesses or industry.

Report known damage to oil and gas infrastructure

If you are a Colorado flood victim and see or know of an oil or gas site that appears to have been impacted by floodwaters, please submit a report and upload photos to SkyTruth’s live-map of damaged oil and gas infrastructure.

This important tool will help raise awareness of and track pollution from damaged oil and gas sites in flood-impacted areas.

Note: Map may also include reports of spills that are not related to flooding.