How oil, gas rules worked during last September’s floods

Colorado’s oil and gas rules generally proved adequate during last September’s Front Range flooding, some said Thursday, as others voiced hope that the event will prompt consideration of new statewide measures to protect waterways even outside of floodplains.

The comments came during a Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission workshop Thursday on what lessons might be learned from the flooding and its impact on oil and gas facilities. The commission plans to hold a hearing soon to consider if it needs to make any adjustments to its rules to be better prepared for the next natural disaster, said commission Chairman Tom Compton.

“I’m not sure I see a wholesale need for changing all the rules and regulations,” said Cathy Shull, executive director of Progressive 15, an organization representing interests in northeast Colorado.

She and Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer praised the level of emergency response that occurred and pointed to the relatively small amount of damage done to oil and gas facilities. According to a oil and gas commission report in late November, some 48,000 gallons of oil and condensate leaked, whereas Kirkmeyer noted that the flood involved billions of gallons and state health officials found no evidence of oil in waterways.

“Let’s not miss the point here, the rules worked,” she said.

But Laura Belanger of the Western Resource Advocates conservation group and Bill Dvorak, an outfitter and guide who’s also involved with the National Wildlife Foundation, said measures the commission has been encouraging companies to take to better protect facilities from flooding in light of September’s deluge should be mandatory.

“These best management practices need to be enforceable rather than just be guidelines,” Dvorak said.

They also urged the commission to take up the issue of possible riparian setbacks or other protections near waterways, something it deferred consideration of during a major overhaul of its rules in 2008, except in the case of drinking water supplies. Belanger said there are a lot of wells close to surface waters across the state, and they are threatened by spills not just during flooding.

Energy companies’ flood response included actions such as shutting in wells remotely and manually as the waters rose. The conservation commission said 13 sizable spills occurred, with one big problem involving tanks that in some cases were unmoored by high waters.

The agency has come up with recommendations such as using welded or molded anchoring points on tanks to hold them down with straps, using steel rather than earthen containment berms around facilities to better protect them from flowing water and debris, deploying structural barriers upstream of equipment, locating facilities as far from floodplains as possible, and maintaining the least possible amount of chemicals on-site and being prepared to move chemicals quickly.

Tisha Schuller, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association industry group, said companies prepare and drill for emergency incidents such as flooding and wildfire and have relationships with emergency responders. She said shutting in wells helped minimize the impacts on facilities, and while there was a lot of initial misinformation about large-scale oil and gas leaks, “in the end the oil and gas impacts were relatively small” compared to the other massive impacts of the floods on homes and infrastructure.

She also commended companies for the help they provided in evacuating and providing food and other assistance to residents, including in communities that she noted since have voted to ban the industry’s use of hydraulic fracturing.

“It’s a huge source of pride for me, the work that we did,” she said.

Belanger praised what she said was “an appropriately high level of response” by the state and industry to the flooding, including getting information out regularly about impacts. She also commended the conservation commission for quickly coming up with its list of recommendations for practices to follow in rebuilding facilities or construction of new ones where flooding may be a concern.

Ron Bateman, chief of the Milliken and Johnstown Fire Protection District, said one lesson from the flood is that contact information for oil and gas companies should be located away from hazard zones at facilities.

That enables crews to more safely access that information, something they learned when responding to a vapor cloud from a gas leak during the flooding.

He also recommended making available not just online but print maps of oil and gas facilities — a need that became evident when the Internet went down during the flooding.


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