Clear up the gray area of farm tap regulation
The fatal house explosion involving an abandoned gas flowline in the Front Range town of Firestone has raised some unsettling questions about the dangers posed by rural farm taps.
These are gas lines running from wells directly to rural homes under agreements between property/mineral owners and energy companies. State regulators refer to them as domestic taps.
The Sentinel’s Dennis Webb spoke to several regulators and energy company representatives following a recent meeting of the Garfield County Energy Advisory Board. Tom VonDette, a Rifle-area rancher and citizen representative on the board, is concerned that they fall into a regulatory gray area.
Following up on those concerns, Webb noted a troubling inconsistency. The statewide review of flowlines ordered by Gov. John Hickenlooper in the wake of the fatal April blast includes domestic taps. But it appears to raise questions of who’s responsible for complying with the regulations.
VonDette does utility locator work. When he’s done jobs for energy producers, he’s been told not to locate and mark farm taps for them because they are private lines that aren’t the companies’ responsibility.
Webb asked Todd Hartman, the spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, who is responsible for following the oil and gas commission’s rules on farm taps. “Generally, COGCC believes it is the company that is responsible,” Hartman said.
That would obligate companies to participate in the state’s One Call program, which directs pipeline operators to locate and mark their lines when people intend to do excavation work. But that runs counter to VonDette’s experience.
As Webb noted, the state’s pipeline rules address aspects of a line’s design, installation and testing, but they don’t include requirements addressing concerns specific to farm taps, such as the lack of mercaptan (a sulfur-containing odorant to help detect leaks and the accumulation of gas) and the failure to remove liquids from raw gas.
Don Simpson, vice president of Ursa Resources, said that the state’s flowline rules have some applicability to farm taps, but he sees the responsibility of regulating such taps falling somewhere between the COGCC and the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.
Hartman said there’s no formal count of the number of domestic taps in the state. Companies have moved away from the practice of providing them, although they remain legal.
VonDette’s persistence at establishing accountability has exposed a chink in the regulatory armor. The COGCC should re-examine its flowline rules to make sure that domestic taps are subject to the same mapping and testing as public lines.
Rural farmhouses with gas lines that may date back to the 1960s shouldn’t be falling through the cracks of a statewide review.