Pumpjack oil well

'Operator's discretion' in reporting may account for lower rate of oil and gas fires in Colorado

June 22, 2017

Boulder, CO – Researchers are calling on Colorado to require reporting of all fires and explosions in the state’s oil and gas industry, after an analysis showed an incident rate significantly lower than that of neighboring Utah, where reporting is mandatory.

Examining reports from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, researchers from the University of Colorado School of Public Health found that operators in the state reported incidents at 0.03 percent of active wells each year – a rate of about one fire or explosion for every 3,690 active wells. This contrasts with a 0.07 percent rate in Utah.

“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,” John Adgate, chairman of the school’s Department of Environmental and Occupational Health and senior author of the study, said in a May 11 press release. “In Colorado, the judgment on whether significant damage or injuries to the public have occurred is left (to) the operator’s discretion.”

According to COGCC rules, Colorado operators must report only fires or explosions that harm a member of the general public and require medical treatment, or cause “significant damage” to equipment or a well site.

The leading causes of oil and gas fires among recorded incidents in the COGCC database included equipment failure (20 percent), lightning strikes (14 percent) and operator error (9 percent). In 42 percent of cases, the cause was listed as unclear, unspecified or under investigation, the release states.

The researchers also recommend that Colorado increase the clarity and transparency of reporting documents. This includes fire reports that cite the fuel source; injuries to workers and citizens; and the estimated volume, cause and damage to other property.

The analysis was published in the June issue of the journal Energy Research & Social Science.