Colorado’s historic floods did more than destroy roads and homes — they also wiped out oil and gas wells, prompting energy companies to shut down nearly 2,000 drilling sites while crews attempt to assess the damage.
The floods also unleashed a new torrent of calls for stricter regulation of the oil and gas industry in Colorado, after several attempts to raise fines and tighten the screws failed in the state legislature earlier this year.
At least two oil tanks has spilled more than 18,000 gallons of oil into the St. Vrain and South Platte Rivers and environmentalists are concerned that many more have ruptured and may be polluting the ground and water.
And at least two damaged well heads leaked natural gas in Weld County, according to the Denver Post.
“The scale is unprecedented,” Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, told the Denver Post. “We will have to deal with environmental contamination from whatever source.”
Oil and gas companies are monitoring their wells and looking for spills, but due to the nature of the flooding, many are still underwater or inaccessible.
“We still have not found any spills of any reportable quantity, but cannot rule out future discoveries until we get to everything,” Encana Corp spokesman Doug Hock wrote in an email to Reuters. Flooding caused Encana, which is based in Canada, to shut 99 of the 1,200 wells it has in Colorado.
Most of the drilling in Colorado occurs in Weld County, which sits atop the Denver-Julesburg Basin, a rich repository of oil and gas far below the surface.
“Weld County, where the South Platte River has been flooding uncontrollably, has almost 20,000 active oil and gas wells,” Gary Wockner, Colorado program director for the environmental group Clean Water Action, told Al Jazeera America.
“It’s the most heavily drilled county in the U.S., and it’s seeing some of the worst flooding,” he said. “Oil and gas and chemicals associated with drilling are going to be spread across a wide swath of landscape.”
Environmental activists are calling for strict new regulations on oil and gas operations, pointing to concerns about fracking fluids being released into the floodwaters.
“Drilling and fracking in floodplains is extremely risky and only amplifies the public health and environmental concerns associated with this dangerous industrial activity,” Wockner told Colorado Public News.
“The [health department] and [oil and gas commission] should inspect every well that was flooded, require that the industry clean up every pollution plume, and create new regulations that better protect the public and the environment in and near floodplains,” he said.
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