Last month’s widespread and unprecedented flooding in Colorado caused the release of more than 43,000 gallons of oil and more than 18,000 gallons of so-called “produced water” that flows back during the oil and gas development process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Those totals are likely to rise, as state oil and gas commission inspectors have yet to evaluate about a fifth of the areas affected by flooding. “I think if we have another week of good weather we’ll be able to say we’ve been through all of it,” said Todd Hartman, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
That there is much still to be learned about the flood’s impact on Colorado’s extensive oil and gas fields and its possible threats to health and the environment is a concern for Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), whose district includes some of the most intensively developed oil and gas regions in the state.
“We don’t even know the full extent of it,” said Polis in a phone interview. He said the state oil and gas commission is “woefully understaffed” and the oil and gas industry “has a self-interest in minimizing the perception of damage.”
Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former oil and gas industry geologist, has also treated the oil and gas impacts of the flooding with a minimal sense of alarm.
“Given the power of this flood, the fact that there hasn’t been that much leakage is incredible,” Hickenlooper said in mid-September during a tour of affected areas.
How the state’s electorate feels and responds is anyone’s guess. But in just a few weeks five communities — Fort Collins, Loveland, Lafayette, Boulder and Broomfield — will vote on ballot measures that would ban or impose moratoria on fracking. Residents of another Colorado community, Longmont, voted to ban fracking within its borders last year, and is now the subject of a lawsuit brought by the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Hickenlooper’s administration.
Polis, who serves on the House Natural Resources Committee, has asked the panel’s chairman, Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), to hold a hearing “so that we may fully understand the potential grave consequences resulting from this flood,” he said in a joint letter sent with Rep. Peter DeFazio, the committee’s ranking Democrat. “We are concerned that these spills and leaks may pose health risks to individuals who are already dealing with damage and destruction to their homes and property.”
Polis emphasized that a congressional inquiry could help identify best practices to avoid in the future the kind of contamination that has occurred in Colorado. He said those could include prohibitions on open pits holding produced water, closed loop systems for the recycling of that water, better ways of securing holding tanks that in some cases were swept away by flood waters and limiting well drilling in flood plains.
Carl Erickson, a longtime Greeley, Colorado resident and activist with a local group called Weld Air and Water, said there are still many areas yet to be inspected. “It’s still an ongoing concern in Greeley and Evans,” Erickson said. “We have lots of areas we cannot get to.”
Weld County alone has more than 20,000 oil and gas wells, an average of about four per square mile. The flooding that began in the second week of September, said Erickson, has served as a reminder to residents that oil and gas development has consequences. “It has served as a wake-up call,” he said. “With the amount of pollutants — you can see the tanks blown over, you can see the flooded berms — it is a visual wake-up call.”