Three Things to Know About the AP Spills Hit Piece

On the Friday of Labor Day weekend, the Associated Press released an article with an accompanying video proclaiming that more drilling has meant more “spills of wastewater that foul the land, kill wildlife and threaten freshwater supplies.”  The AP focuses on spills of brine or wastewater rather than oil spills and looks specifically at the western states.

But the Associated Press left out, or simply glossed over, a lot of crucial context for its readers regarding brine spills, even though EID provided this information to them.  Here are three things to keep in mind while reading this piece:

Brine spills have gone down 50 percent per barrel as production has ramped up

The AP article looked at spills from 2009 to 2013, claiming that they have “worsened.” If you’re only looking at the numbers of spills that would be the conclusion, but a better and more relevant comparison is to look at the number of recorded spills alongside the barrels of oil that have been produced over those same years.

Earlier this year, the New York Times put together a spreadsheet that separates out the different kinds of spills in the state of North Dakota.  As production in North Dakota went up almost 400 percent over the past five years, data from that list show that the number of brine spills went down by over 50 percent on a per barrel basis.

In 2009, the United States was faced with a condition of energy scarcity and the refrain from politicians was that we only have “2 to 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves” so drilling is useless.  Thanks to fracking and horizontal drilling, we’re now the number one oil and gas producer in the world.  That boom in production should be taken into account – and the fact that, in one of our most prolific oil and gas states, brine spills per barrel were cut in half while production quadrupled.

A vast majority of spills are contained on the well pad; never reach the environment

Hit pieces like this one often highlight the number of spills while leaving out the fact that a vast majority of them never actually reach the outside environment.  But as E&E News reported in a 2013 article, “nearly 80 percent of the spills in the state were contained to the well site” in North Dakota. Further, some states, including North Dakota, require that companies report any spills that are a barrel or over, even if it never impacts the environment.

The fact that a majority of spills never reach the soil or water is bolstered by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) recent five-year, comprehensive study on hydraulic fracturing.  That study looked at numerous pathways for contamination, including spills, and 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)

Companies have procedures in place to prevent/mitigate spills

Companies take spill mitigation and prevention very seriously and have dedicated teams on staff for this very purpose. Further, the industry has been proactive, forging ahead with innovative programs to mitigate the risk and remediate the spills that have occurred.

For instance, North Dakota has formed a saltwater spill task force made up of university experts, industry representatives, and state regulators.  Ten of the biggest companies in the Bakken, led by Continental Resources, have partnered with researchers at the University of North Dakota to form the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC) – a program to “with the goal of simultaneously improving Bakken system oil recovery while reducing its environmental footprint.”  A large part of that effort is focused on spill prevention and mitigation. EERC also makes the point that,

“Although the number of spills and spill volume have increased, the number of spills and the total spill volume as a function of oil production are the same as 2001 and have declined since 2007.”

On the other side of the coin, state regulators are always updating their regulations to meet current needs in an oil and gas boom.  The North Dakota legislature also passed a bill in the last session that allocates $1.5 million towards cleaning up legacy spills and a half a million to remediating salt from legacy spills.


While there is no risk free form of energy, there is no risk free form of industry either. Spills have occured in every state regardless of whether it has any oil and gas development.  For instance, 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.  Even the EPA itself just spilled 3 million gallons of mine waste into the Animas River in Colorado.

In other words, if we were looking for a risk free industry, we wouldn’t have any industry.  But what are the benefits?  In the case of shale development, the benefits are vast: we’ve seen millions of new jobs, a substantially stronger economy, and lower energy prices.  We’ve become the number one producer in the world, changing the balance of world power to our favor.  And, thanks our increased use of natural gas, we’ve significantly improved air quality and reduced greenhouse gas emissions to twenty year lows.

Spills are an area where industry must remain vigilant and there’s always room for improvement.  But when the data show spills being dramatically reduced per barrel as production skyrockets, it’s clear that the risks of shale development are manageable – and the benefits are great.

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