Lethal blast fuels activists’ call for safety

Citizens group says explosion proves need for tougher laws

Colorado oil and gas operators on Wednesday began the work of complying with an emergency order to check pipelines following a fatal blast, while local activists said the incident bolsters their call for better protecting nearby residents from energy development.

Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered the review of pipelines Tuesday after an investigation determined that a home explosion in Firestone that killed two men April 17 was caused by a plastic line that had been severed within 10 feet of the house. The line is associated with a well less than 200 feet from the home. He also wants a statewide map of all oilfield pipelines.

“I think a lot of people have felt for years that it will take some people getting killed before we get the attention of the politicians and the regulators. Perhaps this will give more momentum to efforts to provide additional controls and safety regulations for drilling in communities,” said Dave Devanney of the group Battlement Concerned Citizens, which has been concerned about drilling Ursa Resources has begun doing in the residential community of Battlement Mesa.

Don Simpson, a vice president for Ursa, said the Firestone incident resulted from something of a “perfect storm” of events, and he hopes companies can set to rest trust issues it may raise among the public related to drilling.

“We can do it by hopefully our actions and being the most responsible operators that we can be,” he said.

The Firestone explosion involves a well now owned by Anadarko Petroleum but drilled by another company in 1993, before the home was built. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is still trying to determine when the line had been cut, and agency director Matt Lepore said it could have been severed during the home’s construction.

Lepore told reporters this week that what happened was “highly unusual and required the confluence of a number of different events to come to pass.

“It’s horrible and horrifying but there are a lot of wells that have been drilled and operated for a very long time in the state and this is an unprecedented sort of event,” he said.

The oil and gas commission has authority over production lines, or flowlines, leading from wells to larger gas gathering lines or to tanks. The state order, issued through a commission notice to companies, requires that they inspect flowlines within 1,000 feet of occupied buildings, and within 60 days have them pressure-tested unless they’ve been tested since Nov. 1 of last year. Low-pressure lines of less than 15 pounds per square inch aren’t exempted from the requirement, even though they aren’t subject to the state’s normal pressure-testing requirements.

The order also requires companies to mark any flowlines not in use, regardless of distance from homes, and remove operating valves and cap them. By June 30 companies must cut off those lines underground at each end and remove, seal or backfill the lines unless they are tested and put back in service before that date.

Companies also must provide location information associated with all flowlines that are within 1,000 feet of homes, or that are any distance away and are being put back in service.

Lepore said there’s no comprehensive map of all flowlines in Colorado. Since 2008, the state has required companies to provide the planned route of flowlines for new wells.

He said it’s a fair question whether companies should be required to map all their flowlines.

“I think it is a question that will be debated here (within his agency) in the next weeks and months,” he said.

He also indicated the low-pressure-line exemption to the pressure testing rule could also be reconsidered.

Companies also are required to participate in a program through which developers and others doing digging can call 811 and find out what pipelines are in the vicinity. But Lepore said some flowlines may have been installed before that requirement took effect.

Encana, which has about 2,500 wells in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin, was working Wednesday to get a clear understanding of what the state is requiring under this week’s order, said company spokesman Doug Hock.

“We’ve put a team in place to follow up on on this. We take it very seriously. It’s a serious issue of safety and we will pursue it vigorously,” he said.

He said he believes the company for the most part has the flowline location information the state is requiring.

“But there are some areas that we’re going to have to take a look and see if we need to gather some supplemental data,” he said.

Simpson said he doesn’t think the order will be difficult to comply with.

“We just have to do it, that’s all there is to it. It’s a directive that we’ll comply with whatever it takes,” he said.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association has endorsed the state’s action.

“Many of our operators already have begun initial steps to begin re-inspection and testing. We are also proactively meeting with state regulatory officials this week to discuss how we can best guarantee all safeguards are met,” COGA president and chief executive officer Dan Haley said in a prepared statement.

“It is critical that Coloradans feel safe with oil and gas development in our state, and we are committed to doing our part to help build trust with residents and communities.

“It’s also important for Coloradans to know that new technologies and advancement in development, including innovative horizontal drilling, are making our industry safer for communities and the environment. For example, pads at new drilling operations now directly hook up to heavily regulated midstream companies, relying on new and safe technologies.”

Leslie Robinson, of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance in Garfield County, said she’s glad the state is operating on the side of caution and requiring the line tests. She said she expects the requirement to apply to a lot of wells drilled in Garfield County because a lot of drilling in the county occurred when the state only required a minimum 150-foot setback between homes and new wells.

State rules now generally require at least 500 feet between homes and new wells. Setbacks of 1,000 feet are generally required between schools and drilling operations. A measure that would have applied that minimum setback to school property lines rather than schools themselves died in the legislature this year.

Robinson supported that measure, also supports setbacks of at least 1,000 feet in the case of homes, and believes the fact that the state’s emergency testing requirements apply to lines within 1,000 feet of homes bolsters her argument. She thinks the Firestone incident further points to the unknown dangers surrounding drilling near homes.

“It was a problem that we didn’t expect. … You never know about the industry, what’s going to happen next, and that’s why there should be setbacks at least 1,000 feet away,” she said. “… It’s kind of a case of ‘we told you so.’ We’ve been saying that it’s too dangerous to be close to homes and neighborhoods, that setbacks do have to be extended.”

She said the Firestone explosion also points to the need for local governments to require adequate setbacks in the case of new home construction where wells already exist.

“I know builders aren’t happy about that at all, but there’s got to be some compromise to ensure safety,” he said.

Lepore says the oil and gas commission has no jurisdiction over developers and can’t tell local governments what to require in terms of setbacks for new homes being built near wells.

Devanney acknowledged that the situation in Battlement Mesa is different from Firestone and elsewhere in eastern Colorado. There, a lot of homes are being built in areas where older wells exist, including plugged ones. The drilling is just beginning in already-residential Battlement Mesa.

Still, “we do have pipelines and other facilities that are going to be with us for many years to come, and that certainly leaves people a little nervous about what may happen in the future,” he said.

Simpson said Ursa doesn’t have any gas going through plastic lines, as happened in Firestone. And its work in Battlement Mesa involves installing new pipelines that the state will know about, versus a situation where a 1993 well was encroached on by homes.

He also says how far wells should be set back from homes wasn’t the issue for the Firestone well.

“That well could have been a mile away but because of the pipeline it still could have been a danger, the cutting of the pipeline,” he said.


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