ANALYSIS: Spills up in 2021 in top three Western oil-producing states 

Apr 13, 2022

DENVER—A new report from the Center for Western Priorities found that in 2021, oil and gas companies in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming reported an increase in drilling-related spills, as compared to 2020. New Mexico recorded a record number of liquid spills in 2021, however, spills are down in both Colorado and Wyoming as compared to before the pandemic in 2019.

In 2021, oil prices rebounded from a pandemic-induced slump in 2020, when the price per barrel briefly dropped below zero. The rebound in oil prices is likely behind increased production of oil in New Mexico, while Wyoming and Colorado both produced less oil in 2021, as compared to 2020.In Wyoming, oil production in 2021 was down 14 percent from its pre-pandemic level in 2019, and there were around 20 percent fewer spills in 2021 than there were in 2019, indicating a possible decrease in Wyoming’s rate of spills per barrel of oil produced. In New Mexico, oil production in 2021 was up 32 percent compared to 2019, and there were around 20 percent more spills in 2021 than in 2019, showing potential progress in decreasing the rate of spills per barrel in New Mexico. In Colorado, oil production was down 20 percent from its pre-pandemic level, while spills were down almost 40 percent compared to 2019, indicating possible substantial progress in reducing Colorado’s rate of spills per barrel. [The level of methane gas produced in Colorado and Wyoming was very similar in 2019 compared to 2021, however the level of methane gas produced in New Mexico jumped 25 percent from 2019 to 2021, meaning New Mexico’s overall spill rate may not actually be lower.]

While federal regulations regarding spill and leak reporting remained largely unchanged in 2021, New Mexico began requiring operators to report all incidents of flaring and venting of gas totaling over 50,000 cubic feet in a 24-hour period. The new rule, which went into effect at the end of May 2021, is part of a larger effort in the state to reduce overall methane emissions. Previously, the state only required operators to report incidents of venting—in which methane is released straight into the atmosphere rather than burned. This new reporting revealed 12,005 incidents of flaring and 1,211 incidents of venting in 2021, resulting in over 5 billion cubic feet of flared methane and 281 million cubic feet of vented methane in New Mexico.

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 upon request. The Center for Western Priorities obtained 2021 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.

“As oil companies once again push for more access to public land for drilling, it’s clear the industry still has a way to go to clean up its act,” said Kate Groetzinger, report author and communications associate at the Center for Western Priorities. “Oil and gas spills routinely impact water wells and communities in the West, while methane gas continues to spew into the atmosphere at a high rate. Residents and regulators should not simply accept this as the cost of doing business.”

Key statistics from the Center for Western Priorities’ analysis:

  • Oil and gas spills in New Mexico increased in 2021 as compared to 2020, totaling more than both Wyoming and Colorado 2021 spills, combined.
  • At least 930,654 gallons of oil spilled in all three states combined. 
  • Around 6 billion cubic feet of methane was flared and vented in New Mexico, exacerbating climate change, wasting resources, and harming public health.

Photo: Oil and gas lines in New Mexico,  Forest Guardian/Wikimedia Commons