2020 Spills Tracker
Mar 1, 2021
Across the West, spills from oil and gas development take a toll on lands, waters, and communities that live nearby. 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. For the past four years, the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda ramped up drilling across the West while slashing environmental safeguards, and during the administration’s first three years spills in these Western states steadily rose.
Last year, however, spills in each state declined compared to past years. 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. In addition, companies have racked up significant debt over the past decade, causing bankruptcies as the industry was hit by the effects of the pandemic and price war. 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.
Get state-specific data
Colorado and New Mexico publish geographic information on spills within the state. Check out an interactive map of spills in the two states: