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Wells Under Floodwaters Spark Concern

Ken Broeffle

Parts of Colorado’s richest oil field have been inundated with floodwater, raising concerns about thousands of oil and gas wells in the Denver-Julesburg basin.

Update 09/19/2013 7:44 a.m. – Late Wednesday night two energy companies operating in Colorado, Anadarko and Noble, reported spills to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Anadarko’s spill is near the town of Milliken and is at least 5,250 gallons of oil The Denver Post reports. There is no word of size for Noble’s spill, but the company tells the Energy Inc. blog at the Denver Business Journal that the natural gas leaks are from two “low-volume” wells.

Our original post continues:


Initial focus in Colorado has been on rescue of those cut off by floods. Amid the destruction to homes and roads, aerial footage from news helicopters has also shown swamped oil and gas wells.

“We have thousands of wells in the flood areas,” said Tisha Schuller, President of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “Effects range from being pretty much unaffected to where berms around the facility protected them, to those standing in water and those in active running water.”

Many of the sites are inaccessible, status unknown. That’s worrisome for the director of the environmental group Clean Water Action, Gary Wockner. “There’s a very serious concern about what the industry is doing and if they’re going to be able to do enough to address it as soon as it needs to be addressed,” said Wockner.

Because so much is unknown about the status of the submerged wells, he says each of them needs to be inspected to see if they are leaking oil, gas and other chemicals.

Most companies, including the Encana Corporation, began to ‘shut in’ wells last Thursday as word grew that floodwaters were coming.

“Shutting in a well means basically you’re shutting off production of hydrocarbons of oil and gas coming up out of that well,” said Encana spokesman Doug Hock. “You still have tank batteries that you have to monitor but it reduces the likelihood of impacts by shutting in those wells.”

Hock says Encana is already checking each of their 397 wells that were ‘shut in’ during the flood. As of Tuesday, 99 of them are back in production.

“We have a team of six environmental personnel who have begun the process of inspecting leases this morning looking for any environmental impacts in addition of the inspections done by our lease operators,” said Hock. “Our maintenance and production teams are working together to prioritize and update plans to repair and mitigate effects of the storm.”

Credit Nathan Heffel / KUNC
A crew truck from Dallas based Atmos Energy tries to find a route around the flooded South Platte River in Evans, Colo. Teams from various energy companies are working to inspect well sites across flooded regions.

Hock says the company has not found any spills of ‘reportable quantity’ at this point. He adds that spills cannot be ruled out until all sites have had a thorough inspection and assessment in the field.

Even if the wells pass their inspection, the sheer size and scope of the recent flooding raises an important question for Journalist Bobby Magill about regulation of the oil and gas industry.

“Have they prepared and how well designed is the state’s oil and gas infrastructure to withstand this kind of flood?” asks Magill, an energy writer for the nonpartisan nonprofit Climate Central news organization. He’s also the former environmental reporter for the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

“I mean, here’s the thing; these regulations are not written necessarily to be able to address a flood of this magnitude,” said Magill. “It’s anybody’s guess as to how many of these tanks and how many of these wells are leaking and how badly they’re damaged. These wells are drilled on a flood plain and whether or not these -whatever regulations are in place, are adequate enough to address that.”

It is on that last point that Gary Wockner’s Clean Water Action wants movement.

“The environmental community has been pushing for several years now to get better regulations on oil and gas drilling and fracking next to streams and rivers, and that would include in flood plains,” Wockner continues, “and if you go right out by Greeley there are dozens and dozens and dozens of wells right beside the Cache La Poudre River and the South Platte River.”

Whether this incident spurs additional regulation down the road remains to be seen. For now, Encana’s Doug Hock says they’re just trying to get to their impacted wells. “As we do our assessment and review this is all information that we’re sharing with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and keeping them updated on a routine basis.”

The COGCC has a link on their website allowing the public to report oil and gas well issues related to flooding. In addition, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association have launched a webpage providing information on the ongoing assessment of the floods impact on the industry.

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