House Democrats call for hearing on oil and gas spills in Colorado floods

Legislators say Congress must fully understand "potential grave consequences" of floods

An oil storage tank on a well pad lies toppled by flood waters in Weld County.
Rick Wilking/Reuters

Two House Democrats are urging Congress to investigate oil and gas spills caused by massive flooding in Colorado — where the number of oil and gas wells has doubled since 2006, when horizontal drilling and fracking were introduced.

Representatives Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., in a letter sent Friday to the House Natural Resources Committee, called for a hearing on the spills. DeFazio is the committee's senior Democrat.

"Not only have my constituents been dealing with damage to their homes, schools and roads, they are increasingly concerned about the toxic spills that have occurred from the flooding of nearly 1,900 fracking wells in Colorado," Polis said in a press release. "Congress must deal with this issue to ensure that natural disasters do not also become public-health disasters."

Environmental groups have welcomed the decision to have a congressional hearing. "I think it's significant ... It has a good chance of shining light on the failed policies of the state of Colorado," Gary Wockner of Clean Water Action told Al Jazeera.

"A hearing which brings all the information forward, unfiltered by potentially biased sources, would be good for the public and public policy."

Eight people were killed and thousands displaced by what some called a once-in-a-millennium storm. Now that the water has receded, oil- and gas-industry teams have been able to get into the fields to inspect the damage.

Colorado's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) said in its latest report Thursday that it was tracking 12 spills, 14 sites with evidence of a small spill and 60 sites with visible damage to storage tanks.

"People dealing with aftermath of a catastrophic natural disaster don't need to worry that their health is at risk because of oil and gas spills," DeFazio said.

Noble Energy, which operates more than 8,000 active wells in northern Colorado, reported at least four spills totaling roughly 9,000 gallons. In the wake of the storms, the Houston-based company said in a press release that "protection of human health and the environment remain Noble Energy's top priorities as we continue to move forward."

In their letter to the House committee, Polis and DeFazio said it would be beneficial to learn more about how disasters like this can affect communities.

"We respectfully request that you hold a committee hearing as soon as possible so that we may fully understand the potential grave consequences resulting from this flood," Polis and DeFazio wrote.

The COGCC said it has teams in the field that have inspected 736 well locations and covered about 70 percent of the flood-affected area.

Colorado's Department of Public Health and Safety warned residents about untreated sewage possibly contaminating floodwaters but did not mention risks posed by oil and gas leaks, saying, "Flood waters may have moved hazardous chemical containers of solvents or other industrial chemicals from their normal storage places."

But photos of leaking fracking fluid, oil spills, natural-gas blowouts and toppled tanks have united local environmentalists to echo the call for tougher regulations.

"We need to talk about banning drilling and fracking in flood plains, and we also need to talk about setbacks," Wockner said, referring to distance requirements between oil and gas drilling and water sources. "We should start the conversation about setbacks at one mile ... I've seen them as close as 50 feet."

The floods began on Sept. 11 and devastated much of northeastern Colorado, including Weld County, the most heavily drilled county in the United States, with over 20,000 active oil and gas wells.

Drilling and storage sites often operate in close proximity to homes and schools despite some local resistance. The town of Greeley, in Weld County, attempted to prohibit drilling within its city limits, but a 1992 Supreme Court case struck down the ban.

State regulations indicate that local governments can't deprive people of their mineral rights — meaning a jurisdiction cannot prevent an energy company from drilling as long as it's done in compliance with state regulations.

"Because the oil and gas industry is extremely powerful in Colorado, they basically fight every regulation and control much of the state government to make sure they don't have to do everything they can to protect the public's health and the environment," Wockner told Al Jazeera.

He said he questions the information given to the public by the oil and gas industry and the state on the true extent of contamination from the flooding.

"That is one of the reasons why I believe that the Environmental Protection Agency, from the federal government, needs to step in and provide oversight. Perhaps this congressional hearing will help move that forward," Wockner said.

Al Jazeera

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