The historic storms and flooding in Colorado this past week have claimed at least eight lives and destroyed over 1,700 homes with a further 16,300 residences damaged. Roads and bridges in 17 counties have been weakened and the first estimates suggest property damage from the floods will total $2 billion. As the flood waters recede however, there is growing concern about the potential damage caused by flooding of oil and gas infrastructure. One oil tank is known to have leaked 5,250 gallons into the South Platte River and an oil pipeline has cracked, while unknown chemicals are reportedly leaking from flooded fracking sites across one of the most densely drilled states in the union.
The entire state of Colorado has a slightly unbelievable 50,000 oil and gas wells, 20,000 of those are fracking wells in Weld County, which was particularly hard hit by the storms. Of those sites, “you have [hundreds], if not thousands, of wells underwater right now and we have no idea what those wells are leaking,” East Boulder County United spokesman Cliff Willmeng told Think Progress on Monday. “It’s very clear they are leaking into the floodwaters though.”
Photographs of the flooded areas would appear to confirm that, with images appearing across news media and social networking sites that show flooded and broken infrastructure—most frequently condensate tanks utilized in fracking freed from their moorings and washed into residential neighborhoods. The fracking industry is notoriously secretive about the cocktail of chemicals used in the process—and so while it may be clear that there are leaks from the wells, pits and storage containers, it is unlikely that we can know what risks those leaks pose.
The leaks from damage to oil infrastructure have been a little clearer—as crude leaked from oil tanks and into the South Platte River, emergency workers quickly placed booms to contain and clear up the spill.
An online petition is calling for an immediate moratorium on all oil and gas drilling in Colordao, on the grounds that: “It is clear that Colorado and the oil and gas industry was not prepared for worst case scenarios at the expense of the agricultural industry, farming industry, real estate industry, human lives and our water ways that travel into Nebraska.”
Invariably, the oil and gas industry is fighting back and downplaying any talk of impending, or current environmental disaster. According to Think Progress “Two of the region’s largest oil and gas companies, Encana and Anadarko, said they responded by shutting-in or closing down several hundred of their wells, a precaution until they assess the full damage.”
Tisha Schuller, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, told 9News that “There were no fracking sites affected by the flood.” Schuller also managed this fairly extraordinary testimony—as reported by Al Jazeera America—before the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission: “We have seen the social media frenzy regarding pictures of oil and gas facilities ‘under water.’ While the pictures seem extraordinary, there is no data or specifics provided.” To be clear, this ‘social media frenzy’ is photographs posted to Facebook—in the middle of a ‘biblical’ flood—by residents living close to the damaged oil and gas infrastructure, by those who do not have immediate access to, or means to gather, data and specifics.
In the meantime, the key advice to Colorado appears to be “stay out of the water,” with the Colorado Department of Public Health warning of contamination from “raw sewage, as well as potential releases from homes, businesses, and industry.”