Problems Related to the Oil and Gas Industry During a Flood Disaster

The Nature and Extent of Citizen Complaints and Satisfaction with Government Responses.

Introduction

On September 9, 2013 a slow-moving front stalled over Colorado and collided with warm humid monsoonal air from the south. This atmospheric environment resulted in heavy rain and catastrophic flooding along 200 miles of Colorado’s Front Range from Colorado Springs north to Fort Collins that lasted until Sunday, September 15, 2013 (Loon 2013)1. Data provided by the Community Collaborative Rain, Hail, and Snow Network (CoCORaHS), a non-profit community-based network of volunteers who measure and map precipitation indicated that precipitation totals from the 2013 Colorado floods ranged from one to approximately 18 inches of rain (Petty 2013)2. A majority of the precipitation fell from September 11, 2013 – September 13, 2013, in a narrow time period of 36 hours (Lukas 2013)3.

Ultimately, officials declared a total of ten fatalities as a result of the floods; moreover, it is estimated that the floods devastated and altered the lives of approximately 4.5 million Colorado residents as they washed away, inundated, and crumbled entire communities, forcing residents to leave behind their valuables, domestic animals, and sentimental items in an effort to flee for safety (Doyle 2013)4. According to the Colorado Office of Emergency Management, emergency personnel assisted in the evacuation of approximately 12,000 residents, although the floods forced approximately 18,000 from their homes (FEMA 20145; Sullivan 20136). The floods demolished minor and major structures including but not limited to: residential homes, bridges, roads, trails, campgrounds, and other facilities throughout the Front Range. In total, the floods impacted a number of counties in Colorado with 24 of them eventually receiving federal aid (Rochat 20137). Thus far, FEMA reports that Coloradoans have received more than $284 million in federal funds (FEMA 20145).

As the severe storm and flooding events began to unfold so did on the ground reports of impacts to the many oil and gas well pads located in the disaster’s path. Indeed, thousands of pads exist within these counties with approximately 1,614 in the flood impact zone—the area where “flood waters actually flowed” (Lepore 2014: p. 38). Many of these wells are somewhat new due to technological advancements in hydraulic fracturing that have occurred over the last decade. These advancements have substantially grown the industries presence in the state of Colorado and, more recently, along the Front Range. Weld County alone has an excess of 20,000 wells (COGCC 20149) and many exist within the disaster zone.

According to the COGCC, oil and gas companies shut in 2,658 wells before the flood hit (Lepore 201410). However, media and activist accounts of toppled, damaged, and destroyed well facilities emerged soon after. As of April 2014, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC)—the agency charged with both regulating and promoting the industry within the state—noted that it had completed more than 3,400 evaluations and inspections of flood impacted oil and gas facilities (COGCC 20149). Based on information private oil and gas companies provided to the COGCC, the state estimates that approximately 48,250 gallons (or 1,149 barrels) of oil or condensate, an oil and water mixture, spilled during the flooding throughout the Front Range, as well as 43,479 gallons of produced water (or a total of 1,035 barrels) (Lepore 201410).

While scientists are more likely to examine contamination that results from unintentional hazardous material releases that result from natural disasters (Young, Balluz, and Malilay 200411) they are less likely to examine citizens’ perceptions of the damage or their experiences with government and private industry response to damaged well facilities and contamination; this is the central purpose of the current study. Specifically, we draw on semi-structured qualitative interviews with citizens who had well pads on or near property they owned, rented, or managed during the 2013 Colorado Floods to explore the following research questions:

  1. What is the nature and extent of citizen complaints related to oil and gas facilities/products during/after a flooding disaster?

  2. What are citizen reported impacts related to oil and gas facilities during/after a flooding disaster?

  3. How does the state respond to citizen complaints about oil and gas facilities during/after a flooding disaster?

  4. How does private industry respond to citizen complaints about oil and gas facilities during/after a flooding disaster?

  5. What are the unmet needs of citizens related to problems they have with oil and gas industry and facilities after a flooding disaster?

Methodology

This study relies on semi-structured and in-depth qualitative interviews with individuals who owned, managed, or resided on or adjacent to properties that contained oil and gas facilities damaged by the Northern Colorado storms and floods of 2013. We conducted ten face-to-face interviews with residents who owned, managed, or lived on properties in Boulder, Larimer, Morgan, and Weld counties.

As we proposed, we pursued recruitment of participants for our study sample in a variety of ways. First, the PIs on this project have been engaged in ongoing field research on a related oil and gas project in Colorado over the last year. Thus, we re-contacted participants in that study who resided in the impacted areas to see if they had been affected by the storms. Second, we drew on existing field contacts with: (1) activist organizations mobilized against the oil and gas industry; (2) Colorado State University extension agents (n =11) who are familiar with landowners with well pads on their property; and (3) emergency responders though our contacts via the Center for the Study of Crime and Justice (CSCJ) at CSU. Several of these groups and agencies advertised our study on social media pages, in their offices, and to impacted constituents.

Third, we attended and/or left out recruiting materials at several community events focused on distributing flood related information and resources as well as informational meetings that occurred following the flood regarding natural gas development in general. [1]12 We also displayed research flyers and left handbills in government offices and/or local libraries in several flood impacted areas. Fourth, we contacted nonprofit agencies like the Colorado Spirit Flood Recovery program as well as eight local elected government officials, briefed them on our study and requested that they disseminate information to interested constituents; seven of these officials were originally appointed to serve on the flood task force. Fifth, we canvassed several flood impacted areas in Weld County to identify potential participants.

Sixth, we relied on a variety of information from the COGCC. Specifically, we utilized online complaint data, identified names and addresses of citizens who filed flood-related complaints, and contacted those individuals via the mail. We also relied on ongoing updates from the COGCC about specific wells that had been damaged as well as spill reports uploaded to their on-line database. We used this information alongside the Weld County Assessor’s webpage to locate property owner information, physical addresses of wellheads, and adjacent address information. We conducted two separate mailings—one in the fall and one in the spring—to approximately 125 potential participants (250 total letters). This latter recruitment strategy garnered the majority of our participants. Finally, during the height of the storms and flood, the COGCC set up a specific hotline/on-line flood reporting process to respond to flood related problems. We requested and received access to this information though it did not prove to be a fruitful sampling frame because, according to the information the COGCC provided us, no citizens impacted by the flood used it as a method to report damage or problems.

As demonstrated above, we undertook significant recruitment efforts with only a handful of responses from residents for interviews. There are several potential reasons for this lack of response. As we made field visits to homes it became clear to us that: (a) the flood damage was extensive and (b) that recovery efforts were slow and ongoing with many landowners still not able to return to their homes. Indeed, we believe that these factors were significant disincentives for participation as residents struggled with displacement as well as severe and unaddressed damage to property. Thus, data collection for this project remains ongoing as individuals continue to return to their properties, assess damage, and rebuild or move on. Until higher order needs are addressed, participation in research is simply not a priority. For example, we have one potential respondent that only just returned to his home in early April delaying his participation in the research.

For the ten respondents we did interview, we focused on a variety of standardized topics though this varied somewhat depending upon the role of the resident (for example property manager vs. landowner of a property adjacent to an impacted wellhead). Generally, we talked about participants’ experiences with oil and gas prior to the floods; attitudes towards oil and gas development more generally; experiences with the flood; property damage they incurred; damage to oil and gas facilities as well as response from private industry and government officials to damaged oil and gas facilities; and repair timelines. All interviews took place at the homes of residents and thus we were typically able to survey and document flood damage and recovery efforts. Interviews ranged from 40 minutes to three and a half hours. Each interview was digitally recorded and then transcribed verbatim.

While on site, we also conducted field observations of the property and damaged areas. During our field observations, we typically walked the property and surveyed flood damage that included any observable damage to the landowner’s home but also to the well head and/or well pad. We took extensive photographs of our field observations. Unfortunately, we were not able to identify any participants interested in taking part in PhotoVoice as we had originally proposed primarily due to the trauma of the flood and their ongoing recovery efforts. The preliminary findings we present next are based on broad themes from our interviews.

Preliminary Findings

The Sample

We have interviewed 10 participants thus far. Of these, 5 were male and 5 were female. Four of the ten participants owned and resided on the land where a well facility was impacted/damaged, one respondent managed and/or owned a number of agricultural properties in the disaster zone with impacted wells, and five resided on property near or adjacent to problematic wells. All of our participants came from one of three counties: Boulder, Morgan, and Weld. Given the volume of wells in Weld County it is not unexpected that the majority of our respondents were from Weld County.

Citizen Complaints and Reported Impacts Related to Oil and Gas Facilities

The participants we interviewed expressed a variety of experiences with as well as perspectives about oil and gas spills and contamination that occurred during the floods. In this section, we describe our participants’ experiences with impacted oil and gas wells during and after the flood. Our respondents report a wide range of damage severity with two property owners reporting one or several wells as seriously impacted by the disaster resulting in leakages or larger spills, the property manager reporting various kinds of damage, and the adjacent landowners reporting well pads that incurred damage ranging from minor to major. It is worth noting that citizens perceive the idea of damage in dramatically different ways—some described toppled over tanks as minor damage while another reported minor damage to well pad berms as significant. We explore why perceptions varied in the next section.

As a result of the flood, some participants articulated concerns about air, water and soil contamination as well as distress regarding public health. One of these latter participants, Jenna, explained that she became concerned about potential contamination as she and her family waded through flood waters to get personal belongings and a family pet after they failed to receive a flood evacuation from authorities. About this she explained:

I understand there’s a lot of other contaminants in there, but the smell, the feel, the color, it was oil. And I joked. I said, “Call the oil and gas companies. Tell ‘em they don’t have to drill. They can just scrape it off the top! They don’t even have to drill for it!” And then we started gettin’ really worried about the contaminants.

Days later, after the flood waters subsided and her family was able to get back onto their property, she noticed dark staining on her soil and believed it was related to the substantial oil and gas development around her home.

Another participant, Floyd, who resided adjacent to a tank that turned over explained:

It was about 10:30 or 11:00 on Friday morning when it [the water from the river] was really startin’ to come in and neighbors and everybody went outside [near the well pad]…and the smell was really bad, because the one had dumped and it was on its side.

Unlike Jenna, however, he explained he remained relatively unconcerned by the smell and sight:

I don’t know how those wellheads function, but I’m under the impression that they had to be quite well-contained to keep the oil and gas from going anywhere except where they wanted it to go, so it never really seemed to me that the water would create any problem or danger…

Similarly, Gena and Cabe, described a similar incident that occurred on their property. Specifically, debris from the flood toppled various equipment on a well pad while the water inundated it for days. They explained that they “couldn’t tell if it was leakin” but they remained unconcerned because they “figured it was their [industries’] problem.” Even after they discovered contaminated soil next to the damaged well they both explained they remained unconcerned because they, “figured it would go away. It wasn’t runnin’ or nothin’, it was just a spill.

The experiences Jenna, Floyd, Gena, and Cabe described are illustrative of the types of problems our participants witnessed or experienced: overturned tanks; spills; and contaminated water and soil. The other important thing that these narratives illustrate, however, is that participants varied tremendously in their level of concern about the events. While several (n=3) of our participants expressed deep concern about events like this, the majority (n=7) explained that the equipment failure or contamination did not seem dangerous or problematic.

COGCC Responses to Impacted Wells

During flooding events, as well as after, the COGCC advertised through the media as well as on their website that citizens who saw damaged well facilities could report concerns directly to them. This is consistent with a central duty of the COGCC which is to respond to citizen and industry reports of potential problems related to oil and gas facilities and develop, investigate, and decide what remedies are appropriate (for example, fines, remediation, or referral to another state agency).

Only two of our participants reported damage or contamination they witnessed to the COGCC. In the previous section we explained our preliminary analysis indicates that our sample was split in their concern over these events; notably, the level of concern they felt was an important variable that informed whether or not our participants contacted the COGCC. In other words, those individuals who had damaged well facilities on or near their properties and also believed that the damage was problematic or dangerous did contact the state in hopes that the state would be able to investigate the problem and help remedy the situation. Both of these individuals, however, expressed dissatisfaction with the state’s response.

For example, Jenna—whose property was surrounded by oil and gas wells—had hoped the state would help her test soil and water. She explained, though, that while a representative from the COGCC had visited her property they also told her that there was no evidence to indicate that the contamination on her property actually came from any of the surrounding well facilities. Jenna was displeased by this response from the state because she had hoped they would help her test soil and water for contamination. About this she explained:

[B]ecause in order for me to know what is going on with my property, I’ve got to fork out the money to have someone else test it. And in hindsight we’re kickin’ ourselves, because we didn’t take water samples and we had water on the property, we didn’t pick that stuff up. It was stupid, because we assumed the best of people, and we assumed that these people were gonna assume responsibility or just be involved in some way in helping with the cleanup or whatever...In the paper all I’ve seen are reports of them taking samples from the river itself, which, the river’s always moving. But I have seen nothing of anyone having soil tested and where contaminants are actually where people are living. I don’t even know where to go to for that. Who do you have, who do you say, “Come out and test this”? Because I thought this was what the Oil and Gas Commission [COGCC] would do.

Clearly, then, Jenna was dissatisfied with the state’s response because they were unwilling to thoroughly investigate her claim of contamination or assist her with water and soil testing on her property. Because she thought this was the central purpose of the COGCC, she was left feeling uncertain about the steps she could take as a property owner to address these problems.

Bob also expressed dissatisfaction with the COGCC’s response to his concerns about several well pads located near his home that were either submerged “six feet under water” or had berms that were filled and overflowing for “five to six days” during and after the flood event. Bob was particularly concerned about “…contamination flowing onto my property through the groundwater and into my basement.” He reported these concerns to the COGCC and was dissatisfied with their lack of response indicating, “They don’t take it serious, the COGCC…I gave her the information, and I haven’t heard back.” Bob was also suspicious of COGCC’s ability to be impartial reporting that: “Why not pump that water out, if there’s standing water in it? It’s a very easy fix, and she was very defensive of the oil and gas industry and was not very sympathetic to the concerns of the public.

Industry Response to Impacted Wells

Jenna and Bob— the two participants described above, who contacted the COGCC to report damage they witnessed or experienced—also had minimal contact with various oil and gas companies to report the damage. For example, Bob reported that he had a conversation with one operator regarding his concerns about leaks reporting that he was not convinced that their ability to detect leaks was accurate:

…they said they had telemetry to say that they would know if a tank was leaking. I think that’s wonderful they they’d know if a tank was leaking, but if it’s leaking slightly, I don’t think their measuring equipment is that accurate. So if a produced water tank had a crack in it and it’s leaking five, 10 gallons a day, I don’t think they’re gonna be able to detect that.

Jenna, on the other hand, talked with a representative from the company that owned the well nearest to her property; she explained that while the employee listened to her and treated her sympathetically he said little and did nothing to assist her. Moreover, she told the employee:

If anything comes out of this conversation we’ve had today, everybody, I know there’s lots of entities that are reevaluating how they do things and what they do. You have got to reevaluate and assess this and look at how you do things and how it impacts the people who have to live around these rigs.

However, in the end, both Bob and Jenna experienced their contact with industry as, Jenna stated, “lip service” but not “action.

Unlike Jenna and Bob, the rest of our participants (n = 8) did not contact the COGCC to report or assess damage. One of these eight participants instead contacted the private business that owned and operated the well pad(s) on the property they owned or managed to make sure they knew about the damage. Jim—the agricultural property manager—explained:

They [the oil and gas companies] knew exactly what was going on…when I saw a tank tipped over some place, I just wanted to make sure they [the company] knew. In most cases they had already figured that out. They told me they were gonna shut ‘em in and clean ‘em up and they’d get to ‘em when they could.

The seven remaining respondents did not contact either industry or the COGCC to report or assess damage because: (1) they had other, more pressing concerns related to the flood damage on their property; and/or (2) they did not perceive it as their problem and believed that the oil and gas company would effectively deal with the damage or contamination as soon as they could.

Notably, the eight individuals who did not seek the help of the COGCC in the wake of the flood and, instead, relied only on private industry to mobilize and respond to any damage expressed almost complete satisfaction with industry response and characterized the response as efficient, effective, and systematic. For example, Jim—who observed several companies’ responses to damaged facilities on different properties explained:

*And as soon as the water receded, they were in there and shut ‘em out. They closed out a lot of pads completely. They’re goin’ back and fixin’ ‘em as they can. They’re in there now with equipment and they’re takin’ ‘em as they can. And they’re doin’ a good job. I have no complaints with the way they’re goin’ about it. You can’t expect the impossible. They can only fix so many at a time.

Interviewer: So effective response examples include—

Jim: Getting the damaged wells shut out, getting the contamination stopped as quickly as they could, and haulin’ off the debris that conceivably could create more contamination. They got it out of there. It was there one day and gone the next. And they were very responsive to that. I don’t know how the hell they did it, I really don’t.*

The Role of Previous Experience with and Attitudes towards Oil and Gas Development

In the previous sections, then, we illustrated that: (1) participants had a variety of different experiences with problems related to oil and gas facilities during the floods; (2) participant level of concern about the damage to facilities or resultant contamination they witnessed varied tremendously; and (3) participants relied on the state and private industry to respond to these issues and problems to different degrees.

Notably, our preliminary analysis indicates that participants’ perceptions about the damage and the extent to which they relied on the state or industry to respond varied, at least in part, because of participants’: (1) previous experiences with oil and gas industry in and around their property and (2) attitudes—more broadly—towards domestic oil and gas development. Specifically, if respondents had not experienced previous problems with oil and gas development and/or saw development as good, they simultaneously saw flood damaged oil and gas facilities as relatively inconsequential and private industries response as good. Conversely, for those who did experience pre-flood problems with industry—they viewed flood damage as consequential and offered less praise regarding COGCC and industry responses. We briefly consider this theme in this section.

Three of our participants reported experiencing a variety of problems related to oil and gas development on or near the properties where they resided prior to the floods that negatively impacted them. For example, an issue each of these participants reported was related to dust, noise, and light that occurred as industry constructed well pads and extracted oil and gas from the ground. Jenna explained, in detail, how invasive this was for her and her family. Noise, light, and the constant activity from a nearby well pad resulted, for example, in disrupted sleep, unmitigated dust, heavy and fast-moving truck traffic on a country road, and garbage littering her road from oil and gas employees. About this she explained, “It [oil and gas development] just completely changed how we lived, ‘cause we didn’t go outside and we didn’t live our life the way we used to.” Rachel and Bob, two different property owners concurred with Jenna’s assessment of both the quality of life consequences that resulted from oil and gas development as well as their impacts. Rachel, for example, explained, “It was totally an invasion of privacy…My house was just one big holy mess because of the activity 24/7. It was like being in Las Vegas. It didn’t stop.” Bob also accounted a number of quality of life issues and detailed numerous health-related concerns that both he and his family experienced. He explained:

…the well across the road from us, they started flaring, that’s when I was experiencing that metallic taste occasionally, we all had sore throats, things just weren’t quite right. I had lower GI problems for six months where I never had a solid stool till after they shut in their well after it was found to be out of compliance. All the same things you’ll probably hear from other people, that they say are anecdotal.

Notably, all of these participants moved to their homes prior to any industry development and in hopes of finding peace and isolation in a rural, undeveloped place. These individuals who held negative views of oil and gas development (n = 3) were more likely to view flood-related oil and gas damage as problematic and more likely to view state and industry responses as problematic or incompetent. Indeed, the flood confirmed in many ways their deepest concerns.

In contrast, prior to the flood, the rest (n =7) of our participants did not have these types of problems or perceived any problems as “worth it.” For example, Floyd and Sandy moved to their home in rural Weld County after oil and gas companies developed a well pad on a property adjacent to his home. They did not report experiencing any quality of life, health, or pollution impacts from the nearby well. Lynn and Pete, on the other hand, had a variety of well pads on their agricultural property and recalled the noise that typically comes with the development. Lynn characterized it as an “inconvenient” noise for “about a month”; she went onto explain that, “we thought [it] was no big deal, considering what the service that it was providing for so many. We just figured that was a tiny sacrifice to make sure that many people got fuel and heat.

Indeed, as Lynn expressed, all participants in this latter group were fully supportive of oil and gas development in Colorado. About this Floyd explained:

We do live in an area called the Wattenberg Basin that produces a great deal of oil. And I think that they get productive wells almost everywhere they drill around here, and they are drilling a lot. I have more concern about the public using its influence to stop production and exploration of oil and gas than I do about effects from it, because I think it’s very important for us to have the benefit of those natural resources…I don’t like paying more than I have to, to warm my home or drive my car. I don’t like sending huge amounts of American resources over to the Middle East, which is a place that I’m not very fond of.

Jim concurred with Floyd and explained:

I think that the oil and gas companies, with or without the flood, are the cornerstone of our economy in northern and northeastern Colorado. I think they are well run, well staffed, they’re doing the right things, and they’re carrying the economy in the state of Colorado.

Like Floyd and Jim, participants in this group explained they were generally supportive of oil and gas development because: they wanted to “see us totally off oil from other countries”; believed that we had a responsibility to use the resources that were under our feet; and pointed to the economic benefits oil and gas development brought to struggling rural towns and local economies. It is important to note that four of these individuals who reported being supportive of industry development also received royalty payments because they owned some or all of the mineral rights beneath their property. None of these recipients were overly concerned with damaged wells on their property, none had reported the damage to the COGCC, none were dissatisfied with industry responses, and most were ambivalent about COGCC responses.

On the other hand, the three participants who reported experiencing numerous pre-flood problems related to oil and gas development expressed more nuanced and diverse attitudes towards oil and gas development. For example, Rachel was the only participant who did not support oil and gas development. About this she explained, “It’s not renewable, it’s not sustainable. It’s going to go away. It’s gonna end at some point, and then what?” Bob and Jenna were more moderate in their responses. For example, Bob agreed with Rachel that energy should move towards renewables; he also, however, explained that he did not support the government subsidies that oil and gas companies receive. Jenna, on the other hand, acknowledged that the industry does “positive things for the community, but it seems like in return for that, they have immunity for everything else.

Unmet Needs of Citizens Related to Oil and Gas Industry and Facilities

The majority of respondents did not consistently articulate any unmet needs; however, this was not surprising given that most were satisfied with industry and COGCC responses. Among those who shared information about unmet needs we learned that these needs clustered into five broad themes. First, there was concern that pre-flood industry presence and activities were relatively unregulated by the COGCC. As framed by Bob:

…the state is allowing ground and groundwater contamination. They are just rollin’ the dice, sayin’ it might or might not happen, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That was what I told the COGCC engineer, and of course she hasn’t gotten around to sending me my email about the percolation rate. And it probably goes back to, they tell the oil and gas industry, “Your tank can only perk at this rate.” But they never inspect for it, they never check. And the oil and gas industry doesn’t care, because nobody’s lookin’ after it.

Second, there was concern about continued oil and gas presence near surface water and in flood plains. For example, Bob articulated that: “…the facility is still there, and it’s literally 10 feet off the bank of South Boulder Creek, so it’ll be vulnerable to future flooding.” Third, some respondents indicated that their concerns or complaints about flood related damage were not taken seriously and/or they were treated unfairly by the COGCC (see sections above on industry/COGCC responses for examples). Fourth, a few participants noted that they did not feel informed by the state and/or industry about spills, potential or confirmed contamination, and plans for remediation. For example, Sandy explained:

In terms of the flood, I feel like it would have been nice if they would have let us know a little bit more of what was going on. I don’t know how that needed to be done, and I don’t that if this is justified, but to me, it’s almost like, “We’re not gonna tell you anything. We don’t owe you that.” And maybe that’s just in my head, but I would appreciate knowing, did it actually spill? But other than that, I don’t have any ill feelings.

Floyd expressed curiosity (but was careful to tell us he was not concerned) about a marsh area he and his wife are fond of that was located near a damaged well pad.

I have more curiosity than anything else, but until last year, when it was very dry, this area was I think they actually call it a wetland. It had cattails. It was quite pleasant in spring and summer evenings. We’d get an amazing serenade from frogs and birds and stuff. I am wondering if whatever oil there was is going to screw that up. It won’t ruin my life if it does, but I’d rather it didn’t.

Conclusions

The purpose of this research was to explore several research topics related to: citizen concerns and impacts related to oil and gas facilities during/after a flood disaster; how the state (i.e., the COGCC) and industry responded to these impacts and concerns; and identify any unmet needs of citizens. Given our small sample, and more importantly that many potential respondents have not yet had their voice heard because they remain displaced or distraught from the flood, we strongly caution against making any firm conclusions regarding the preliminary findings of this study. With these qualifications in mind, we found that: (1) participants had a variety of different experiences with problems related to oil and gas facilities during the floods; (2) participant concern about damage to oil and gas wells or resultant contamination they witnessed varied tremendously; (3) few participants called upon the COGCC to resolve issues and problems; (4) many participants passively relied on private industry to resolve problems (only three called private industry directly); and (5) most respondents were satisfied with industry responses to flood-related impact and damage. We also found that participant perceptions about the damage and the extent to which they relied on the state or industry to respond varied, at least in part, because of: (1) participants’ previous experiences with oil and gas industry in and around their property; and (2) general attitudes towards domestic oil and gas development.

In closing, we would like to remark that these preliminary findings are in stark contrast to our broader statewide project that explores the nature and extent of citizen experiences with the oil and gas industry as well as COGCC and industry responses to citizen complaints. Indeed, preliminary findings from the statewide project suggest significant quality of life and public health concerns as well as extreme levels of dissatisfaction with industry and, in particular, the response efforts of the COGCC to these problems many citizens experience. There may be several reasons for these divergent findings namely that the flood disaster diluted industry and government responsibility in ways that do not exist in the broader statewide project. More specifically, a damaged well pad caused by the flood is viewed by some respondents (but not all [2]13) as excusable or justified provided that it is dealt with properly and in a reasonable timeframe after the disaster. It is interesting to note that what is reasonable differed for respondents as some wanted an expeditious response while others were willing to wait until industry prioritized a response. Conversely, a problematic oil and gas well (or industry behavior) that exists in a disaster free context is less likely to be viewed as excusable/justified and more likely to be viewed negatively by citizens.

Given our current research findings, and nesting them into a broader research context of our statewide findings, we recommend that future research also be examined within larger social patterns and experiences that occur outside the disaster itself. By doing so here, we realized that the flood disaster created a spotlight or surveillance effect fueled by media coverage, activist accounts, interested citizens in/out of the disaster zone, and numerous government organizations with access and oversight (e.g., CDOT, FEMA, EPA, National Guard, etc.) as well as other corporate entities (e.g., private insurance) that does not consistently exist at the same level of intensity outside the disaster context. While in the disaster spotlight, industry and the COGCC appeared to respond in ways that were satisfactory to many of our respondents—whether or not this will continue to be the case as the research persists remains to be seen. Without a disaster spotlight, citizens in our statewide project (particularly citizens in rural areas) tend to report significantly different experiences (often negative) suggesting that the disaster event itself is an important independent variable of interest for future research on citizen satisfaction, industry practices, and government responses.


  1. Loon, Alison. 2013. “Denver area sees showers, thunderstorms as cool front moves into Colorado.” The Denver Post. Retrieved December 21, 2013 (http://www.denverpost.com/weathernews/ci_24053156/cool-front-brings-showers-thunderstorms-metro-denver). 

  2. Petty, Daniel. 2013. “Colorado flooding 2013: map of rain totals. The Denver Post. Retrieved December 28, 2013 (http://www.denverpost.com/2013coloradofloods/ci_24101329/colorado-flooding-2013-precipitation-totals#ixzz2qRFBBwcg). 

  3. Lukas, Jeff. 2013. “Severe Flooding on the Colorado Front Range.” Western Water Assessment. Retrieved October 21, 2013 (http://wwa.colorado.edu/resources/front-range-floods/assessment.pdf). 

  4. Doyle, Rice. 2013. “Report: Colorado Flooding was Unprecedented.” USA Today. Retrieved April 5, 2014 (http://www.usatoday.com/story/weather/2013/09/25/colorado-flood-report/2870191/). 

  5. FEMA. 2014. “Colorado Flooding – Six Months Later” FEMA. Retrieved April, 5 2014 (https://www.fema.gov/news-release/2014/03/07/colorado-flooding-six-months-later). 

  6. Sullivan, Patrick. 2013. “In Colorado: Safe Shelter and Food Tough to Get When Everything Floods.” The Non-Profit Times. Retrieved October 30, 2013 (http://www.thenonprofittimes.com/news-articles/in-colorado-safe-shelter-and-food-tough-to-get-when-everything-floods/). 

  7. Rochat, Scott. 2013. “Longmont Reservoir has working pipeline for first time since flood.” Longmont-Times Call. Retrieved January 8, 2014 (http://www.timescall.com/longmont-local-news/ci_24769470/longmont-reservoir-has-working-pipeline-first-time-since). 

  8. Lepore, Matthew. 2014. Lessons Learned in the Front Range Flood of September 2013. Denver, CO: Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. 

  9. COGCC. 2014. “Colorado Weekly and Monthly Oil and Gas Statistics” (4-02-2014). Retrieved on April 16, 2014 ( http://cogcc.state.co.us/.) 

  10. Lepore, Matthew. 2014. Lessons Learned in the Front Range Flood of September 2013. Denver, CO: Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. 

  11. Young, Stacy, Lina Balluz, and Josephine Malilay. 2004. “Natural and Technologic Hazardous Material Releases During and After Natural Disasters: A Review" Public Health Resources. 322: 3 – 20. 

  12. For example, the Northern Colorado Recovery Assistance and Recovery Fair at the Ranch; Disaster Relief and Response: Looking Forward Using Lessons from the Past in Fort Collins; Fracking, Flooding and Climate Change at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Boulder; Shale Boom or Shale Bubble? Fracking False Economic Promise at the Broomfield Community Center; as well as the Big Thompson Watershed Forum and the Big Thompson River Restoration meetings in Loveland. 

  13. Some of our participants reported that industry should not have been permitted to drill near surface water and in known flood plains. Some also felt that tougher regulations over equipment might have mitigated some of the flood damage. 

Suggested Citation: Opsal, Tara and Tara O'Connor Shelley. Problems Related to the Oil and Gas Industry During a Flood Disaster: The Nature and Extent of Citizen Complaints and Satisfaction with Government Responses. Quick Response Grant Report series; 249. 2014.