Thousands of Oil and Gas Spills Add Up to Major Impacts for Colorado

Less than two years ago, the biggest drilling boom in Colorado history, like so many western energy booms over the past century, suddenly went bust.

Years of over-drilling led to plummeting natural gas prices on the world market and an historic amount of natural gas in storage. Coupled with the imploding economy, drilling became less profitable in Colorado and across the West by mid-November 2008.

In the following four months, those factors forced companies to cut their drilling operations. The rig fleet in Colorado was cut by almost 66 percent.

Despite the large-scale downturn in drilling, the lingering and cumulative environmental impacts from onshore oil and gas development continue to dramatically accumulate.

In the wake of the Gulf oil spill, The Denver Post recently published an analysis of self-reported data from the oil and gas industry that uncovered 981 oil and gas spills in the state just since the beginning of 2008. Collectively, those spills have released more than 5.2 million gallons of drilling liquids - with untold gallons spilling into waters that both people and wildlife depend on.

Yet, Colorado produces far less oil and gas than many other states in the nation - including its neighbors Wyoming and New Mexico. In fact, Colorado is only ranked 10th for among oil producing states and fifth for natural gas production, according to the Energy Information Administration. States with greater production may likely have recorded even more small spills.

While the reported Colorado spills have released far less than the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf from BP's Deepwater Horizon well, small oil and gas spills in Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states can have profound impacts that can add up to lingering environmental damage.

Indeed, The Denver Post analysis indicates that at least 25 percent of the 981 spills that have been reported to the state in just the last 2 1/2 years have impacted groundwater or surface water.

Many of those water resources are critical for drinking supplies for both people and wildlife.

The impacts to water supplies and human health can be serious.

In May 2008, a northwest Colorado outfitter took a long drink of the well water he'd consumed at his cabin for years.

But this time, the veteran hunter became ill because his once pristine well water was laced with a carcinogenic compound most likely released from oil and gas operations surrounding his well.

Citations issued to area oil and gas companies alleged the company responsible for the incident failed to report the contaminated release to state regulators. The matter is still unresolved.

In recent years, Colorado oil and gas regulators have taken important first steps to implement what may be the nation's most progressive oil and gas protections.

But it's still unclear whether the new safeguards are helping in limiting oil and gas spills in Colorado. In the days since The Denver Post analysis appeared, Colorado regulators have already recorded three more spills that collectively released about 714 gallons of oil and 7,770 gallons of industrial water.

That water - which accounts for, by far, the majority of spilled fluids from oil and gas facilities in Colorado since 2008 - contains measurable amounts of compounds that we shouldn't allow to pollute our important water resources and landscapes.

As the Gulf oil spill continues to devolve into our nation's largest environmental disaster, we must ensure that state and federal energy regulations are strengthened to protect our landscapes, communities and water.

The cumulative impacts of hazardous spills, large and small, can leave lasting damage for the water we drink and the streams, lakes, meadows and forests our world-class wildlife needs to thrive.

Oil and gas companies for years have reaped the rewards of drilling, while communities and residents across the country have assumed the risks. It is time to require that those risks are minimized so that future generations of Coloradans and Americans impacted by drilling can continue to enjoy the West's clean air and water and bountiful wildlife habitats.

Steve Torbit, a Colorado native who has a doctorate in wildlife ecology from Colorado State University, is regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation. For almost three decades he has worked on energy development issues across the West, including significant work as a wildlife biologist for the Colorado Division of Wildlife and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.