Colorado had at least 116 fires and explosions at oil and gas operations from 2006 to 2015, according to a study published this week in Energy Research & Social Sciences from researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health (ColoradoSPH) at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
The ColoradoSPH research team evaluated accident reports from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the state agency that regulates oil and gas activities, and found incidents were reported at 0.03 percent of active wells each year, or about one fire or explosion for every 3,690 active wells.
The rate of these incidents per number of active wells in Colorado is significantly lower than in Utah (0.07 percent of active wells). Utah requires mandatory reporting of all incidents involving fires and explosions, but Colorado requires self-reporting only of fires or explosions that have caused harm “to a member of the general public which requires medical treatment” or “significant damage to equipment or well site” according to COGCC rules.
“While the rate of fires and/or explosions were higher in Utah compared to Colorado, this is likely due to the mandatory reporting of all incidents in Utah,” said Dr. John Adgate, senior author and chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at ColoradoSPH. “In Colorado, the judgment on whether significant damage or injuries to the public have occurred is left the operator’s discretion.”
The main causes of the recorded incidents in the COGCC database were equipment failure (20 percent), lightning strikes (14 percent), and operator error (9 percent). The cause of these incidents were unclear, unspecified or under investigation for 42 percent of the cases.
The recent home explosion in Firestone, CO, has raised concerns regarding the proximity of oil and gas operations to homes. While the tragedy was not part of their analysis, the authors found that between 2006 and 2015 the COGCC database did report a total of 18 incidents that had 10 or more residences within one mile of a fire or explosion. Colorado has a growing urban/suburban population that is increasingly residing near oil and gas development. As the manuscript notes, “this highlights the close proximity of these incidents to homes,” and indicates the potential for serious incidents to occur in the future. Large multi-well pads are also increasingly common in populated areas, compounding the potential risks.
The authors recommend required reporting of all fires and explosions at oil and gas operations in Colorado, aligning with the laws in other states including Utah and Texas. Though no comprehensive database of such incidents exists, several organizations and U.S. government agencies collect data on such incidents.
They also 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. Other information that could improve reporting includes the duration, intensity, fuel source, exact location of the incident, proximity to residences or other buildings, inventory of combustible or explosive chemicals and supplies on site at the time of the incident, an estimate of economic costs, and the type and extent of emergency response.
Furthermore, the authors recommend increasing transparency of reporting and communication of these incidents. Compiling these incidents in form that is accessible and understandable to the general public and policymakers is will help with future prevention efforts.
This research was completed by the Colorado School of Public Health with support from the AirWaterGas Sustainable Research Network funded by the National Science Foundation.
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