New rules needed for well safety, report says
A report by Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission staff recommends that the agency adopt new regulations to reduce the threat of leaks and other problems from floods and other natural disasters.
The report is part of the agency’s effort to look at what lessons should be taken away from last September’s flooding on the Front Range.
“It is an initial step toward a COGCC program that might better and more resiliently locate oil and gas equipment near drainages in Colorado,” the report says.
The report notably does not call for any requirements for facility setbacks from waterways — an issue the commission put off during its wide-ranging 2008 rules rewrite, and one some conservationists have called for it to consider in light of last year’s flooding. Nor does it call for any changes in law.
But Laura Belanger, a water resources and environmental engineer with the Western Resources Advocates conservation group, said she’s happy to see the commission consider adopting as requirements the recommended practices the agency had put together shortly after the flooding. She said that squares with a key point she tried made at a recent commission lessons-learned workshop — “that just having these important protections as recommendations is not sufficient.”
Following are some of the commission staff’s proposed requirements that would apply within a designated distance of a waterway’s ordinary high-water mark:
■ Each company must maintain inventories of wells and production equipment in such areas, so it can quickly determine infrastructure that might be in danger during a flood. The report credits companies’ “extraordinary efforts” to rapidly assemble such inventories and shut in wells as the rain started to fall.
■ All new wells must have remote shut-in equipment, with existing wells retrofitted “on a reasonable and practical schedule.” The commission also should evaluate whether to require such equipment in wildfire-susceptible areas. The agency says extensive use of such equipment by companies went far to limit the damage from the flooding.
■ No pits should be allowed, and any existing pits in these areas should be removed and reclaimed. The report says the commission found no active earthen pits in last September’s flood impact zone, but such pits near waterways are much more common in places including western Colorado.
■ Secondary containment must be built with steel berms and synthetic liners rather than being constructed of earthen materials, and tanks and equipment must be connected to the ground with anchors and cables.
Last year’s flooding killed 10 people, destroyed more than 1,850 homes and damaged roads, bridges and land, causing damage expected to top $3.35 billion, the report says.
“The flood caused substantial and expensive damage to oil and gas tank batteries, production equipment and installations located near waterways,” it says.
Damage resulted in some 48,250 gallons of oil and condensate spilled along with nearly 43,500 gallons of produced water from wells. Those fortunately are “relatively small amounts” that mostly were heavily diluted by the flood and washed away without leaving a trace behind, and are now undetectable, the report said.
However, it also noted that the flooding in many areas didn’t approach historic peak flows.
The commission estimates that more than 5,900 oil and gas wells are within 500 feet of a waterway substantial enough to be named. The report says another database that includes drainages that flow only when there’s enough precipitation puts the total at nearly 21,000.
That compares to a statewide active well count of just shy of 52,000 at the start of the year.
The report notes several reasons wells may be built near waterways. Sometimes surface owners request such locations because the land can’t be used for agriculture. Setback requirements from buildings may give companies little choice but to locate in undeveloped floodplains. And in places such as western Colorado, a shortage of other flat locations plays a role.
Belanger said the only waterway setback rules in place now are designed to protect municipal water supplies, cold-water trout fisheries and designated Gold Medal fishing waters. She hopes the issue of setbacks will be looked at when flooding regulations are considered.
“I definitely think it’s very complicated and complex and needs to be looked at on a situational basis,” she said. “But I think we need to remember that the … waters of the state are a public resource and they need to be properly protected.”
In a prepared statement, Tisha Shuller, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said Monday that the flood report “reiterated facts supporting that Colorado’s oil and gas industry was extraordinarily well prepared, responded in real time, and is committed to Colorado’s recovery. Our industry prepares for all sorts of disaster with emergency response plans and drills; in this case, we were quick to respond with remote and manual shut-in of wells, deployment of thousands of employees, and implementation of 24-hour emergency operations centers.”
She said the association doesn’t see the need for any legislative changes.
“We will continue to work with the (oil and gas) commission to share lessons learned and continually improve best management practices,” she said.