Cow blamed for spill at well site in southeast La Plata County

Animal ‘inadvertently’ opened valve, releasing ‘produced water’

A cow is the suspected culprit of a “produced water” spill at an oil and gas well site in Southwest Colorado, a Texas-based company said last month. Enlargephoto

Courtesy of Associated Press

A cow is the suspected culprit of a “produced water” spill at an oil and gas well site in Southwest Colorado, a Texas-based company said last month.

An oil and gas operator in Southwest Colorado says a cow is at fault for causing a spill at a well site near Ignacio – which might be a first for the state.

“There is nothing new under the sun, except perhaps this,” said Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. “We hope this is not the opening salvo in an epidemic of bovine vandalism.”

According to state documents, Fort Worth, Texas-based XTO Energy said it discovered on Nov. 21 an oil and gas byproduct leaking from a valve at a well pad about 35 miles southeast of Durango.

The cause? A cow, the company said.

XTO Energy representative James McDaniel did not return calls seeking comment, so it’s unclear how exactly the languid grazer caused an equipment failure at a well site.

The only explanation the company offered to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission was in a report filed a day after the spill that said the release occurred “when a cow inadvertently opened the valve.”

Christi Zeller, executive director of the Energy Council, said it’s common for the oil and gas industry to operate on lands where cattle may be grazing. It’s not so common, however, for a cow to end up causing a spill, she said.

“I’ve never heard of that happening, and I look at almost all the spill reports every year,” said Zeller, whose nonprofit trade organization represents the oil and gas industry.

Reports filed with the COGCC indicate the spill was discovered around noon Nov. 21 just west of the unincorporated community of Tiffany, off County Road 325.

In all, about 10 barrels of “produced water” pooled on site, the company said.

Produced water is a term that refers to the wastewater byproduct of oil and gas production, which can contain high concentrations of hydrocarbons and carry negative environmental impacts.

A barrel is generally considered about 42 gallons.

COGCC’s Hartman did not immediately have further information on how exactly the cow caused the spill. He did say that oil and gas operators are required to install fencing in agricultural areas if the landowner requests it.

Bruce Baizel, energy program director with Earthworks, an environmental nonprofit, said XTO Energy should have taken proper precaution to fence off their facilities if it knew cattle were in the area and presented a risk.

“Cows love to rub against everything, everybody knows that,” Baizel said. “(Energy companies) should protect their equipment from expected things that may happen. If a cow can break or open a valve, they should have fenced it off.”

Attempts to contact the surface owner of where the well is located were not successful Monday. It’s unclear if there was fencing around the oil and gas facilities.

According to state documents, XTO Energy took surface samples and background samples at the site a day after the spill. As of Monday, the findings of those analysis had not been posted to the COGCC’s website.

XTO Energy noted in its report “a water truck was used to recover almost 10 (barrels) of water from the pad.”

The spill, which occurred nearly 200 feet from the nearest surface water, was not contained within berms or secondary containment, according to the report.

“XTO is in the process of working with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to remedy the release,” McDaniel wrote to affected property owners Nov. 22. “XTO is working to correct the issue in order to prevent future releases from occurring at this site.”

Oil and gas operators are required to report any spill that is one barrel (42 gallons) outside containment, five or greater inside containment, and any spill that threatens a waterway or residence, within 24 hours.

So far in 2017, there have been have been eight reported spills to the COGCC, amounting to more than 200 barrels of produced water released onto La Plata County lands.