Proponents of more local control over oil and gas drilling in Colorado are gearing up to spend millions on a slew of ballot measures this fall, and no less an authority than Representative Jared Polis (the anti-fracking movement's poster boy) estimates that the energy industry will spend as much as $50 million trying to defeat those measures. So how is the beleaguered voter supposed to cut through the blizzard of hype on both sides and get some hard data on the industry's track record in this much-fracked state?
No easy task, to be sure, but the folks at the conservation-minded Center for Western Priorities have come up with a tool that could very well come in handy this election season: an interactive map plotting oil and natural gas spills in Colorado and New Mexico over more than a decade.
The Western Toxic Release Map displays in graphic form the environmental degradation resulting from drilling operations, recording more than 13,600 spills in Colorado and New Mexico that occurred between 2000 and 2013. Actually, the two states topped 15,000 spills in that period, amounting to roughly 100 million gallons of oil, fracking fluids and other toxic gunk getting inflicted on the landscape, but 1,668 of those spills aren't on the map because of reporting errors.
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The map distinguishes oil spills from brine or drilling water or other types of releases by color, and clicking on individual dots can lead you to a more extensive report on those particular blunders. Colorado saw 4,900 spills since 2000, which works out to about one per day. New Mexico's total is more than double that -- not because the operators are twice as sloppy there, but because spill reporting requirements are stricter in the Land of Enchantment.
Just how significant those spills are in environmental terms is another matter. The Center also offers a Colorado Toxic Release Tracker that keeps a running tally of each year's spills and their impact on water resources. Out of the 156 spills reported to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission so far this year, for example, only nine (6 percent) resulted in documented contamination of groundwater or surface water. But more than half those spills occurred within a thousand feet of surface water, and more than a third of them were less than a hundred feet from groundwater.
What does this mean to your neighborhood and Uncle Myron's farm? Head for the map and find out.
More from our Environment archive circa February 3: "Fracking linked to birth defects? Colorado study fuels debate."