From 2014 to 2016, Oklahoma oil and gas operators spilled more than 1.2 million gallons of oil and 9.2 million gallons of wastewater throughout the state, according to an analysis by The Frontier of spill data from the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
A little more than half — 52 percent — of the oil estimated by the Corporation Commission to have been released during that time was recovered by the operator or a remediation company, and about two-thirds of the wastewater released was recovered, according to the data.
The data reflects releases of oil and wastewater at locations such as well sites and storage tanks, and does not include spills from interstate pipelines, which are regulated by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
In many cases, the numbers are only estimates of how much oil or wastewater was spilled, said Matt Skinner, spokesman for the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, and in some cases an estimated amount spilled may not have been provided or noted in the data field by the inspector.
“There’s no way of knowing how much higher it would be. Chances are, (actual total amounts) would be to the high side, rather than the low side, but there’s no way of knowing,” Skinner said. “It can be very difficult to gauge unless the operator has the records where we can get a better idea.”
Also, the data reflects only the oil and wastewater releases reported to the Corporation Commission. A spill of 10 barrels or more, or a spill that goes into a body of water are required to be reported, Skinner said.
Of the 3,080 incidents of oil and wastewater releases from 2014 to 2016 reported by the Corporation Commission, 234 releases were into a body of water and 20 resulted in confirmed fish or wildlife kills, the data shows.
View where in Oklahoma reported oil and wastewater spills occurred in 2015 and 2016, how much was spilled, whether the spill went into a body of water, and whether a fish or wildlife kill resulted by using the map below.
From 2014 to 2016, around 457 million barrels of oil were produced in Oklahoma, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The 28,857 barrels of oil and 220,073 barrels of wastewater reported by the Corporation Commission as being released in Oklahoma during that time are only a small fraction of how much was actually produced, said Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil & Gas Association.
“It’s pretty intriguing for how little it really is,” Warmington said. “When you look at daily production in Oklahoma being north of 450,000 barrels, that’s a pretty small amount of oil spills.”
Even a fraction of what is produced can have dramatic consequences on the environment and people, said Barbara VanHanken, chair of the Sierra Club’s Green Country chapter, which represents Tulsa, northeastern and southeastern Oklahoma.
“It’s still too much. Whether (the Corporation Commission data) is absolutely accurate or not, it’s still ridiculously high,” VanHanken said. “It damages a lot and it’s going to damage a lot for a long time to come. You can’t totally clean a spill whether it’s in a stream or in a lake or on the ground.”
Companies that do spill oil or wastewater are required to pay for cleaning the mess and any damages, Skinner said, but it often takes time to remediate spills.
“It all comes out of their pocket,” Skinner said. “These things can take many months, sometimes years, to fully remediate. There’s no magic formula to just make it like it didn’t happen.”
In the end, the goal is to get things back the way they were, Skinner said.
“There are a lot of variables, but the bottom line to any remediation effort is: you have to leave it the way it was before this occurred,” Skinner said.
From 2014 to 2016, the data shows the highest amount spilled by a single operator was 85,554 gallons of oil by Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy. The largest amount of wastewater spilled during that time by a single operator came from Oklahoma-based Sandridge Energy, which spilled more than 1.1 million gallons.
A Sandridge Energy spokesman did not respond to a message from The Frontier seeking comment for this story. A Chesapeake Energy spokesman referred The Frontier to the company’s corporate responsibility web page and report.
Wastewater spills can be especially difficult for farmers who rely on the soil of an area, Skinner said, since wastewater is often much saltier than seawater.
“The value of land, many times, is based on the soil,” Skinner said. “It can quite frankly be worse than an oil spill, in terms of damage to soil.”
Warmington said new technology has allowed companies to better avoid spills altogether, or at least minimize the amount of fluid that escapes if a spill occurs.
“You just don’t have the kind of potential for spills you used to have,” Warmington said. “Again, when you look at 20,000 barrels, that’s a very small amount compared to oil production in the state of Oklahoma just for one day being 10 times, 20 times that.”
Operational consistency is a big part of preventing spills or reacting quickly to contain spills when they do happen, Warmington said.
“Employees and contractors are drilled and tested on and relentlessly pushed to pursue consistency in operating procedures,” Warmington said. “I think that’s one of the single best things you can do — if you train everybody on the right way to do it and you drill that training into them, you can prevent accidents from happening.”
The data from the Corporation Commission also shows the number of both oil and wastewater spills reported by the Commission has been declining, from 1,183 in 2014 to 870 last year.
Though oil production in Oklahoma decreased slightly from 2015 to 2016, the production amount last year was still higher than in 2014, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Donelle Harder, vice president of communications for the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association, said the fall in energy prices beginning in 2015 that caused many companies to scale back their operations may play a role in the fewer amount of reported spills. Rig counts dropped by around 59 percent during that time, she said.
In addition, oil and gas companies have began drilling in different areas of the state that produce much less saltwater, Harder said.
“What we’re drilling today versus what we were drilling in 2014, we’re bringing up enormously less produced water,” Harder said. “Where they’re drilling now, the produced water is significantly less, but it’s also not as salty, so they’ve been able to use some recycling methods and do not have to depend on disposal wells like they were.”
Warmington praised the work of the Corporation Commission, and said the body does well in both working with and regulating the oil and gas industry.
“I think they’re doing a really good job,” Warmington said. “They’ve been in this business a long time and have very good relationships with the industry. I think they’re very good in terms of their monitoring and regulatory scheme.”
VanHanken agreed said the oil price drop may play a role in the fewer number of reported spills, but said state budgetary cutbacks to the Corporation Commission and political pressure may play a role as well, leading to inadequate oversight.
“I don’t think they do (provide adequate oversight),” VanHanken said. “But I also think they have their hands tied because they are under-budgeted along with the other agencies in our government. They’re understaffed and undermanned because of budget reasons, and possibly because of other reasons.”
The Corporation Commission currently has 57 employees to inspect and investigate oil and wastewater spills from the state’s 200,000 active wells, Skinner said.
Click here for a look at the entire Corporation Commission data set from 2014 to 2016, including spills not listed on the map.