Three Things to Know about CSU’s Latest Spill Study
Researchers at Colorado State University recently published a new study focusing on the potential for spills to contaminate soil and water during the oil and natural gas development process.
To reach their conclusions, the authors pulled soil samples from an area of Colorado known for oil and gas development and exposed the samples to chemicals commonly found in fracking fluid in order to test how they reacted with each other as they biodegraded. From the study:
“Here, we study simulated spills of HF fluid additives on agricultural topsoil in order to advance our current understanding of processes that control their environmental fate and toxicity.”
Besides the obvious fact that yes, if you expose soil samples to chemicals, there will in fact be contamination, context here is important. In most cases throughout the study, that was left out, potentially leaving readers with an alarming conclusion.
Here are three things to keep in mind while reading this piece:
#1. Total fluids spilled in Colorado constitute just .01 percent of the overall volume of fluids handled by industry
In discussing the research, the authors highlight the number of spills and amounts that were reported to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) for 2014. From the study:
“In 2014, 838 spills were reported to the COGCC, which resulted in a total release of over 2,500,000 L. Ninety-three of these spills were reported as having contaminated groundwater, and eight contaminated surface water. Six hundred four of these spills (72%) were not contained within the well pad, suggesting that the surrounding environment (i.e., soil and/or water) was impacted.”
While the researchers are quick to highlight that 2.5 million liters of spills were reported to the COGCC in 2014, it is also important to remember that the amount reported represents a very small percentage of the amount of fluids that are handled by the oil and natural gas industry annually. As the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) demonstrates:
“In December 2015, the COGCC reported that 53, 719 wells were in active operation in Colorado. To get a sense of the size and scope of spills in Colorado, comparing spill volume to the volume of handled fluids creates an accurate picture. COGCC documents in an October 2015 “COGCC Spill Analysis by Year 1999-Q3 2015” report that although the industry had spilled 1.7 million gallons of fluids by that time in 2015, it had handled over 10.5 billion gallons of fluids: Meaning, total fluids spilled constituted 1/10000 or .01% – of the overall volume of fluids handled by industry. That’s not to dismiss the figure, nor ignore the potential for small spills to cause environmental damage, simply to put the scope in perspective.” (Emphasis added)
A further look at the available data from COGCC shows that the rate of spills is generally on the decline. From 1999 to the 4th Quarter of 2015, state data shows that while the number of active wells in the state more than doubled and the percentage of oil produced rose by more than 500%, the percentage of oil spilled out of what has been produced in the state in 2015 was just .001% of the oil that was produced.
#2. Colorado regulators have strict rules for spill remediation
The study’s authors find that certain chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process are slow to biodegrade if exposed to agricultural topsoil, which they believe can create the “likelihood for crop uptake, and potential for groundwater contamination.” From the study:
“On the other hand, sorption to soil and biodegradation, even of biocides at toxic levels,7 are operative retardation and/or removal mechanisms. As a result, chemicals may be transported at different rates, thereby separating the mixtures and allowing for degradation. Conditions that do not favor degradation or transport may result in accumulation of HF additives in (agricultural) topsoil layers, with potential for uptake in crops or negative impacts on plant growth.”
That might be true if those chemicals were just left in the ground, but state regulators impose strict requirements for spill remediation. From the COGCC’s 2014 Annual Report, that was cited by the researchers in their study:
“Once a spill has occurred, the Operator is required to remediate environmental impacts. The environmental staff review and approve remediation plans, evaluate analytical data, monitor the progress of the remediation, and ensure cleanup standards and other remediation requirements are met through verification sampling, data review, and other measures.”
When it comes to groundwater, the COGCC’s 2014 Annual Report is also clear on the lengths operators must go to remediate potential problems. From the COGCC’s 2014 Annual Report:
“Where groundwater has been impacted, operators are required to: eliminate any continued release; investigate the extent of contamination; remove the source of contamination (such as the impacted soils in contact with ground water or free hydrocarbon product); remediate; establish points of compliance; and monitor contaminant levels.”
COGCC Rule 910 further highlights how far Colorado’s operators must go to remediate spills. From the COGCC:
“Remediation shall be performed in a manner to mitigate, remove, or reduce contamination that exceeds the concentrations in Table 910-1 in order to ensure protection of public health, safety, and welfare, and to prevent and mitigate significant adverse environmental impacts. Soil that does not meet concentrations in Table 910-1 shall be remediated. Ground water that does not meet concentrations in Table 910-1 shall be remediated in accordance with a Site Investigation and Remediation Workplan, Form 27.” (Emphasis added)
A look through recent remediation reports shows exactly what operators must do to remediate spills, which can include using vacuum trucks, excavating and removing soil, and groundwater monitoring.
#3. Studies show low risk of water contamination from fracking
As EID has highlighted before, a bevy of research exists demonstrating the extremely low risk of water contamination from fracking. But, in keeping with the tone of the study, the researchers speculate that drinking water is at risk. Also from the study:
“Additionally, in areas where the water table is close to the surface or in soils with larger hydraulic conductivities, there is increased risk for water contamination as a result of HF fluid releases. This is especially concerning in areas where people rely on well water. As a consequence, monitoring and remediation strategies that go beyond current standard parameters36 and target site-specific HF fluid additives are critically needed”
Yet, research such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent five-year, comprehensive study on hydraulic fracturing shows “no widespread, systemic impacts” from fracking. Though surface spills are not part of the fracking process, the EPA — under pressure from environmental groups –expanded the definition of fracking for the purposes of its study on fracking and water contamination to include activities associated with oil and gas development, such as surface spills, as part of the fracking process.
Even under this expanded definition, the agency found the number of cases of groundwater being impacted by development activities to be “small” compared to the incredible boom in oil and gas production across the United States:
“Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”(ES-6)
Of course, any spill during the oil and gas development process or any industrial activity is taken very seriously. That’s why operators work hard to prevent spills and even harder to clean them up when they do happen.
Any industrial activity comes with risk, and energy development is no different. For example, spills from industrial activity have occurred in every state regardless of whether any oil and gas development is taking place there. Vermont produces no oil or gas, yet the state’s spill database shows about 650 to 900 spills a year of oil, propane, and industrial wastewater. As Coloradans are well aware, even the EPA itself recently spilled 3 million gallons of mine waste into the Animas River in Colorado.
So while research to improve our understanding of the environmental impacts of energy development is welcome, we must also look at the full context of the issue. What’s clear is that the risks of shale development are manageable and the economic and environmental benefits are great.