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Spill rates from oil and gas drilling are dropping in Mountain West’s top fossil fuel states

This is an image of a green oil pumpjack on a vast desert basin. The sky is cloudy.
Adobe Stock
An oil pumpjack in New Mexico, where about 1,500 drilling-related spills leaked 4.5 million gallons of liquid in 2023.

A new report shows the rate of spills from oil and gas drilling is dropping in the Mountain West region’s top fossil fuel-producing states.

Every year, oil and gas companies across Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming report thousands of drilling-related spills, which release toxic materials like polluted water and crude oil.

In 2023, operators in those states reported a combined 2,791 spills, which equaled 6.5 million gallons of liquid, according to the Center for Western Priorities. The nonpartisan advocacy group analyzed data for oil and gas wells on private, federal and state land.

Drillers in New Mexico had the highest share of spills (1,479) and liquid leaked into the environment (4.5 million gallons). Meanwhile, Wyoming had about 898 spills that leaked 1.3 million gallons and Colorado had about 414 spills releasing 719,124 gallons.

Notably, over the past decade, the amount spilled in each state has decreased relative to how much oil is produced each year. This shows regulations for curbing spills are effective and don’t lower production, said report author Kate Groetzinger.

“So, states should continue increasing regulations that aim to reduce spills,” Groetzinger said. “These spills sterilize the ground underneath them. They can get into our aquifers, they can get into streams and rivers, and kill wildlife and poison drinking water.”

Most spills are due to equipment failure, she said, adding that big oil companies should address this issue by investing in equipment upgrades instead of paying out big dividends to shareholders.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.

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