Abandoned, aging well sites can leak air pollution, methane (with video)
Leaks at oil and gas drilling sites might be noticed from bubbles rising to the surface of rainwater puddles on the lip of a wellhead casing.
Or a keen eye may notice a shimmering haze of heat rising from a pipe atop a well site tank.
Other times, the smell from leaking volatile organic compounds is obvious while standing nearby a wellhead and can cause headaches or nausea in individuals.
More often, the signs that an aging, unmaintained or abandoned well is emitting pollution are invisible. In Routt, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Jackson counties, dozens of well sites are leaking or venting and adding to cumulative air pollution in Colorado, according to the nonprofit watchdog group Earthworks. Specialized optical gas imaging camera equipment is used to document the air pollution from well sites accessible from public land or roads.
Last week, Routt County Commissioners Beth Melton and Tim Redmond and Routt County Environmental Health Director Scott Cowman took part in an Earthworks educational field tour of leaking or polluting well sites, including two locations about 8 and 11 miles southeast of Hayden along Routt County Road 37 and other sites nearby in northeastern Rio Blanco County.
Earthworks Colorado Field Advocate Andrew Klooster along with Routt County resident and retired air-quality engineer Rodger Steen showed the group sites that Earthworks documented in June as emitting pollution. One wellhead is now leaking worse, said Klooster, a certified optical gas imaging thermographer.
County officials viewed live video of polluting leaks seeping from the ground around wellheads, from between layers of wellhead casing and from hatches and pipes on storage tanks.
“It’s just belching pollution into the atmosphere that is not visible to the naked eye and not being combusted,” Klooster said of a venting tank.
Routine venting from tanks that is not captured, capped or combusted is prohibited in Colorado since early 2021, but tank venting is still happening in Routt County and across the state, Klooster said.
Videos of leaking wellheads and well site equipment in the region can be viewed via the Earthworks Northwest Colorado Optical Gas Imaging playlist.
Wellwellwellcolorado.com is a website produced by seven partnering nonprofit or community action groups ranging from Colorado Sierra Club to Western Colorado Alliance that provides a story map about oil and gas production concerns across Colorado
After visiting and documenting polluting well sites in Routt, Rio Blanco and Jackson counties in June, Earthworks submitted official complaints to the Air Pollution Control Division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Three of those complaint locations are along C.R. 37 south of Hayden.
Producer Robert R. Bayless in Denver said his company purchased the oil well located 8 miles southeast of Hayden that was drilled by another producer decades ago. The site on federal land was producing oil in June but is not currently producing. Now the site is venting from a storage tank as the company does not have equipment or a pipeline to capture beneficial use for those vented hydrocarbons, Bayless said.
Following a phone message from the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Nov. 5, Bayless said his company sent a vendor to check the current leakage from the inactive wellhead Nov. 6 and is investigating that concern.
“We take producing oil and gas in Routt County in a very environmentally benign and efficient manner very seriously. We take compliance with regulations very seriously,” Bayless said. “We mean to be good operators.”
Since starting field work across Colorado in 2016, Earthworks has filed 123 complaints for alleged violations of air pollution regulations with state officials based on 548 site visits. That means about 23% of sites visited are documented as leaking or polluting, Klooster said.
Across Colorado, 50,063 oil and gas wells are currently considered active at some level, which are the sites most at risk of leaking or emitting pollution, Klooster said. Of those, only 29 are located within Routt County. The number of active well sites in nearby counties include 516 in Moffat and 2,894 in Rio Blanco, according to “Well Status” page on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission online dashboard.
While air pollution from oil and gas operations in Weld, Adams and Garfield counties rank highest in the state, Klooster said the well locations in Routt County are mostly low-producing and aging sites that are operated on a minimal basis for years, Klooster said.
“The overwhelming majority of wells in Routt County are low-producing wells, and it is likely that many of them are polluting, whether due to leaks and malfunctions or due to allowable venting and combustion,” Klooster said.
Minimal, extended production is a common tactic in the industry because wells that are no longer active have to be capped and the site reclaimed, which is expensive, Steen said.
“Colorado has a problem with pollution from oil and gas wells, including neglected and poorly maintained ones that produce very little or fluctuate between producing and sitting inactive for months on end,” Klooster explained.
Hydrocarbon pollution leaking from wells contains a large majority of methane, said Steen, a board member at the community action group Western Colorado Alliance. Scientists know methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes significantly to global warming and climate change.
“Each and every one of these wells that is leaking or polluting methane is contributing to climate change,” Klooster said.
Volatile organic compounds leaking from well sites — for example, BTEX, or benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes — are hazardous to human health, Steen noted. In addition, leaking hydrocarbons contribute to the production of ground-level ozone pollution.
Another concern is that taxpayers can be stuck with high bills to cap and reclaim old well sites that become abandoned and thus wards of the state. Two of these orphaned wells visited on the tour in Rio Blanco County, 1.5 miles south of the Routt County border, formerly belonged to Stehle Production Co. in Craig, Klooster said. Those specific orphaned wells have been inactive since 2019 or not producing since 2014.
“Orphan status occurs when operators walk away from their responsibilities, and, over time, no responsible party can be identified. In some instances, as in the case of Stehle, the state may declare wells as orphaned because a known company is financially unable to cover the costs of dealing with its own pollution,” Klooster explained.
A July 2020 report by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission showed 215 orphaned wells and 454 associated orphaned sites in Colorado. The state spent more than $4.7 million addressing orphan wells in fiscal year 2020, of which only 9.7% was covered by bond funds from producers, according to the Conservation Commission.
“The tour was a great opportunity to understand the costs of reclamation of orphaned wells as well as how the regulatory framework and enforcement process for emissions works, including its limitations,” Commissioner Melton said.
Commissioner Redmond, a licensed plumbing contractor by trade, said he is especially concerned about leaks seeping from the ground around the wellhead casing.
“If it’s a hazard to the citizens of my county, it’s my job to protect them,” Redmond said after viewing the live video. “Public support is what is going to move the ball forward.”
Klooster remains frustrated that local polluting well sites reported to the state Air Quality Control Division in June are still leaking, venting or polluting in some manner.
“We have to push for stronger regulations on the county, state and federal levels that have to be matched by stronger and well-funded enforcement, which means actually investigating complaints, handing out violations and fines, and being more accountable and transparent to the public,” Klooster said.
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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