For two decades, Wyoming’s top energy industry has been natural gas, which has proved steady and profitable. But the opening of the Niobrara shale has sent companies rushing to tap it. In 2013, oil output in the state jumped 26 percent.
In 2008, the Niobrara produced about 146,000 barrels of oil. Last year, it was about 3 million.
Whereas such a boom would necessitate a pipeline in most other states, much of Wyoming’s land is federally-owned with lengthy permitting processes. Instead of a pipeline, Wyoming transports its oil overland.
According to Jim Willox, chairman of the Converse County Commission, in 2008 an average of seven cars could be spotted on the roads in Converse county. Now the Commission counts between 400 and 500 every day.
As Benjamin Storrow of the Casper Star-Tribune writes, “Wyoming’s ability to produce oil currently exceeds the state’s ability to ship it to refineries across the country.”
This overloaded infrastructure may be contributing to Wyoming’s current problem: oil spills.
In 2010, about 165,000 gallons of oil spilled. In 2013, it decreased to 90,000. This year, it’s up to nearly 220,000 gallons – mostly in the Powder River Basin, what the Star-Tribune calls the “epicenter of the Wyoming oil boom.”
Production has doubled in the basin over the last five years, with companies employing both horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” to mine the Niobrara Shale of its rich oil deposits.
Yet despite this growing volume of spills, the federal and state agencies that oversee them do not notify the public except in the most severe cases.
“Unless it’s going to have an impact on public health, that’s where we would notify the public,” says Department of Environmental Quality spokesman Keith Guille.
Almost half of this year’s spilled oil can be attributed to one company, Belle Fourche Pipeline, which spilled over 100,000 gallons between April 30 and May 23 alone.
Guille says his department is currently developing a public spills database to encourage more government and industry transparency.