Report: Oil and gas explosions, fires may be underreported due to Colorado's 'lenient' guidelines

Report: Oil and gas explosions, fires may be underreported due to Colorado's 'lenient' guidelines
Posted at 1:40 PM, Jun 05, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-05 15:46:47-04

DENVER – A new research report by Colorado scientists published last month says that statistics on oil and gas explosions and fires in the state may be lacking or underreported because of “lenient” self-reporting guidelines in Colorado.

The study will be published in the July edition of Energy Research & Social Sciences by researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

The researchers compared the rates of fires and explosions at oil and gas sites in Colorado and Utah, then cross-checked the data with the property’s proximity to occupied homes.

They looked at data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and from the state of Utah between 2006 and 2015.

The research found that over the time period, there were 116 fires and explosions reported in Colorado, while there were 67 in Utah. However, the rate of explosions was higher in Utah (0.07 percent of active wells) than it was in Colorado (0.03 percent of active wells).

But the researchers chalked that up to a vast difference in reporting requirements between the two states: Utah requires oil and gas operators to self-report any explosion or fire associated with a well, while Colorado only requires operators to report fires and explosions that have injured a member of the public or caused significant damage to equipment or the well site.

However, the researchers note that “in Colorado the role of interpreting whether an incident results in ‘significant damage’ is left to the discretion of the [oil and gas] operator.”

Forty-two percent of the fires and explosions did not have a listed cause, according to the report.

Colorado is the nation’s seventh-highest crude oil producer in the nation, and the study looked at the state’s most-active basins: the Denver Julesburg basin, which covers the metro area and northeastern Colorado, and the western slope’s Piceance basin.

The research found that 40 percent of fires or explosions in Colorado necessitated the response of local fire departments, and that close to two-thirds of the fires and explosions happened within the Denver Julesburg and Piceance basins.

The report also looked at the number of homes within 1 mile of the explosion sites, and found that many of the sites had homes within a mile radius.

In the Denver Julesburg basin, there were an average of 31 homes within 1 mile of each explosion or fire site, but one of the sites had 819 residences within the mile radius. Eighteen of the fires or explosions had more than 10 homes within the mile radius.

The research shows that approximately 19 percent of people living within the Denver Julesburg basin live within 1 mile of an oil and gas well—including several pads that hold multiple wells.

In Colorado, occupied residences are supposed to be at least 500 feet from active well sites, though the researchers and more recent incidents have shown that is not always the case.

But the researchers’ perhaps most important finding was that the state’s system for reporting such incidents was lacking.

While they wrote that the self-reported accident analysis was “valuable,” they said that it has a “notable limitation.” Primarily, they said, “non- or underreporting of incidents at these sites is possible…Similarly, incidents at inactive sites, such as abandoned or plugged wells, may not be reported.”

“Previous research has also found that dishonesty and underreporting is prevalent with self-reporting of industrial accidents,” they wrote.

They showed in the report just how difficult it was to, in a timely manner, obtain accident data from the state’s website—a process that required significant computing and analysis to be able to read in the first place.

But they also said that the reporting system could be improved, since they do not require operators to include much detail in their reports, nor are operators required to document the actual wellhead site associated with each incident—which may have happened away from the actual wellhead itself.

“Based on the incomplete information in many reports, we recommend that the minimal data required on a fire report should document the fuel source and estimated volume, cause, damage to other property, and injuries to workers and citizens,” the authors wrote.

The authors also suggested the COGCC require companies to document the intensity of the fire explosion, its exact location, the proximity to buildings, estimate of costs and emergency management responses.

“Based on these findings, it is our judgment that many incidents are likely not being reported to the COGCC in Colorado,” the report says. “Utah reported an incident rate that is on average 2.49 times greater than Colorado for these incidents per well and this potentially represents the magnitude of the unreported events in Colorado.”

The report asks the state to put all information on fires and explosions at oil and gas sites “be available to the general public in easy to access formats,” saying gathering the data for their report was a “time consuming and costly endeavor” – noting that Utah’s data were easily obtained.

The report comes amid a heightened focus on Colorado’s oil and gas industry.

Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered a review of all state oil and gas wells after a methane leak from a nearby vertical well caused a house to explode in Firestone, killing two people and injuring another.

An explosion at an oil tank battery in Weld County late last month killed another man and injured three others; and just days later, a blowout in northeast Colorado forced dozens to evacuate as the well was capped.

Hickenlooper’s order requires state and oil and gas operators to map their active and inactive well sites and to cap any abandoned sites, among other things.

Colorado Public Radio interviewed the study's author, John L. Adgate. Read a transcript of their interview here.