Data Dump: Spills Happen

Visualizing three years of spills, leaks, releases, and other incidents in an energy sacrifice zone

The San Juan Basin, a 10,000-square-mile geological bowl in northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, is a place of sparse and expansive beauty, where sky and land, thousands of years of culture and geology all mingle. It is also a hydrocarbon hot spot, a place that has been altered indelibly by 100 years of oil and gas development. It is one of the nation’s oldest and most beleaguered energy colonies, the people and place long-sacrificed on the altar of America’s culture of combustion and corporate greed. 

Just as deep time bares itself pruriently here to anyone who fails to avert their eyes, so too are the scars readily apparent. To view the land from the air, especially, is to gaze upon a vast spiderweb of roads and well pads, pipeline cuts and processing plants, dilapidated refineries and rusted out tanks. Landscape and infrastructure are inextricably intertwined. 

Less apparent, but no less troubling, are the multitude of materials oozing, seeping, leaking, and spewing from that infrastructure. Most of that comes in the form of slow, steady, chronic leaks of methane, volatile organic compounds, and even hydrogen sulfide that never get noticed except when watchdogs come out with their FLIR cameras, which render plumes of gases visible. 

But bigger ruptures and spills, or “incidents,” do get reported—most of them, at least—to the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division, which then records them in an online database. Only the most dramatic incidents ever get any notice beyond that, however. Quite often even nearby residents remain in the dark, regardless of the danger a spill might pose. 

For years I’ve been using the database to map the incidents in order to make them more visible to the public. The last map I did was in 2018, charting spills and leaks and releases for the previous seven years, during which hundreds of new oil wells were drilled into the Mancos shale formation around Chaco Canyon using the horizontal drilling and multi-stage hydraulic fracturing technique known as fracking.

By the time I made that map, the drilling boom was ebbing due to low oil prices. Since then, virtually no new wells have been drilled in the San Juan Basin, as oil-seekers have flocked instead to the Permian Basin in the southeast corner of the state, where drilling is cheaper and refineries closer at hand. But as Jerry Redfern details in a recent story for Capital and Main, the spills, leaks, and other “incidents” haven’t stopped at all. 

That prompted me to update the spill map, only including incidents that happened during this drilling-lull, from Jan. 1, 2018 to April 1, 2021.

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I do these maps on Tableau, which is an amazing platform for this sort of thing. Unfortunately, embedding Tableau maps into Substack just doesn’t work (or perhaps I’m just not tech-savvy enough to figure it out). So you’ll have to go to the link at the end of this story to peruse the maps. But first, take a gander at these rather alarming takeaways: 

Some more totals: 1,915 barrels of condensate (liquid hydrocarbons consisting of propane, butane, and the like); 857 barrels of natural gas liquids; 15 barrels of glycol; 6 barrels of lube oil; 3 barrels of motor oil.

All this data tells us that infrastructure—be it a pipeline, a well, a tank, a flowline, or a valve—will leak, no matter how well it is built or monitored. And while the drilling phase is the loudest, most noticeable phase of extraction, the potential for disaster continues for as long as wells are producing and methane or oil is flowing through pipelines. In fact, the potential can endure long after a well is abandoned if it isn’t plugged and sealed properly.

In other words: Spills Happen.

VIEW THE INTERACTIVE MAP. Notes on viewing: There are two maps, one for methane, one for liquids. Toggle back and forth with the numbers up top. Hover over bubbles for details on each spill. Zoom in to see exact locations, but keep in mind that locations for some of the pipeline-related incidents are approximate due to insufficient data. The map only shows incidents for the New Mexico side of the basin. Stay tuned to the Land Desk for a map showing the same for the Colorado side. CLICK HERE FOR THE MAP.

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In somewhat related news, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, announced that atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane levels surged last year, despite the pandemic.

“Human activity is driving climate change,” said Colm Sweeney, assistant deputy director of the Global Monitoring Lab in a NOAA press release. “If we want to mitigate the worst impacts, it’s going to take a deliberate focus on reducing fossil fuels emissions to near zero—and even then we’ll need to look for ways to further remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.”

For more on fossil fuels emissions, see the first section of this dispatch.

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WE’RE READING: A powerful and harrowing story by Judith Lewis Mernit on oil and gas drilling in California, which often happens in residential areas, much to the detriment of the people who live there, many of whom are Spanish-speaking and from lower income brackets. The story is for YaleEnvironment360, and is well worth a read.

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