ANALYSIS: Mountain West’s top oil and gas-producing states saw decline in number of spills, but skyrocketing methane emissions in New Mexico

Mar 9, 2021

DENVER—Across the West, spills from oil and gas development take a toll on lands, waters, and nearby communities. In Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming—the Mountain West’s top oil and gas-producing states—companies report thousands of spills each year, which release toxic materials such as crude oil and produced water. A new report from the Center for Western Priorities found that in 2020, oil and gas companies reported 2,179 oil and gas-related spills that released more than 109,000 barrels of produced water and 24,000 barrels of crude oil collectively. Overall, oil and gas-related spills were down in all states, and volumes of produced water, oil, and other materials released followed that trend. However, methane emissions in New Mexico skyrocketed to the highest levels reported since tracking began in 2013 with over 1.7 billion cubic feet of methane released, more than double what was released in 2019.

“Despite the COVID-19 pandemic and a global price war that hammered the oil and gas industry, hundreds of thousands of barrels of toxic materials were spilled in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming last year, polluting surrounding resources and threatening the health of communities,” said Hannah Rider, Policy and Research Associate at the Center for Western Priorities. “Even though the number of spills declined, the data shows a continued need for inspections, enforcement, and environmental safeguards.”

In 2020, the industry was hit hard by decreased demand resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and an international price war that caused the price per barrel to drop below zero in April. Although overall annual production remained steady, drilling rig counts and well starts did decrease. The coronavirus pandemic also may have disrupted the observation and reporting of spills. 

While federal regulations remained unchanged, Colorado and New Mexico have stepped up their environmental regulations and enforcement for oil and gas drilling within their states. In Colorado, the number of inspections increased 37% compared to 2018. Fines also increased significantly, with companies paying over $25 million in 2020, compared to just $2.8 million in 2019 and $5.2 million in 2018. This spike was largely due to a single fine that is the largest in the state’s history; however, even without that fine the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) still issued millions of dollars more in fines than previous years. 

New Mexico’s oil and gas regulatory agency regained the ability to assess fines on oil and gas companies in 2019 after a decade without the ability to enforce its regulations, which could have contributed to increased compliance in 2020. In addition, inspections rebounded to over 40,000 site visits in 2020, after a dip in 2019. While there are a variety of factors that may have contributed to the decline in spills last year, it is likely that state-level regulations and enforcement are working to protect land and water in the West.

This report is the latest addition to the Center for Western Priorities’ ongoing tracking of oil and gas-related spills in the Mountain West. Some states, including Colorado and New Mexico, make spill information public, while other states, such as Wyoming, provide the information by request. The Center for Western Priorities obtained 2020 data from each of these states and quantified what materials were spilled and which operators were responsible in order to better inform the public on drilling impacts.

Key statistics from the Center for Western Priorities’ analysis:

  • Oil and gas-related spills were down in all states, and volumes of produced water, oil, and other materials released followed that trend
  • Methane emissions in New Mexico skyrocketed to the highest levels reported since tracking began in 2013 with over 1.7 billion cubic feet of methane released, more than double what was released in 2019
  • Similar to past years, five companies in each state are responsible for a significant proportion of all spills. This year, over 40% of spills in each state were caused by just five operators
  • Spills are concentrated in one or two counties in each state, remaining consistent with findings from past years. In Colorado, Weld County had 48% of the state’s spills. In New Mexico, Eddy and Lea counties had 88% of the spills. In Wyoming, Converse and Campbell counties had 41% of the spills

Learn More:

For more information, visit westernpriorities.org. To speak with an expert on public lands, contact Aaron Weiss at 720-279-0019 or aaron@westernpriorities.org. Sign up for Look West to get daily public lands and energy news sent to your inbox.