It depends on what your definition of ‘robust’ is
“The Commission has a robust enforcement program to ensure operator compliance.”
— Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission web site
Suppose, for a moment, you’re Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper, charged with protecting more than 60,000 city residents from all manner of criminal activity 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. You have 113 patrol officers at your command, to be spread out in shifts over 38.6 square miles of western Colorado’s largest city.
Seems reasonable, though I suspect John would like a few more uniformed bodies in patrol cars out there enforcing state statutes and municipal ordinances. Arguably, he has the resources to fulfill his responsibilities.
Now put yourself in Matt Lepore’s shoes. He oversees the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and its enforcement activities. He’s charged, among other duties, with enforcing safety standards and permit compliance for oil and gas drilling and production statewide. Like John, it’s 24/7, 365, but Lepore’s territory is 104,000 square miles, much of which has either current or historical well activity.
To do that job, you have 18 field inspectors plus 6 supervisors. You’re charged with assuring safety and compliance at more than 54,000 active wells and their associated facilities moving 4.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas and 344,000 barrels of oil per day, around 30 active drilling rigs, more than 36,000 inactive wells and thousands of miles of associated pipelines.
So far this year, your inspectors have averaged 2,715 inspections per month. At that rate, it’d take almost three years to look at every active and inactive well. That fails to take into account any inspections of thousands of miles of pipes, both active and abandoned. Or the active rigs. Or associated production and gathering facilities.
And the COGCC web site claims the agency has a “robust” enforcement program. Does that seem reasonable to you?
The exclamation point on all this is the recent gas explosion at a home in Firestone, on the Front Range, that killed two men and hospitalized one child. State officials have acknowledged that leaking odorless gas from a severed abandoned pipeline connected to a working well ignited, causing the explosion.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has ordered companies to inspect all pipelines located within 1,000 feet of an occupied building. Inspections have to be left to operators because state officials have acknowledged they don’t know where all the pipelines in Colorado are located, more than a little problematic if inspectors could even get around to them.
In its waning days (the session ends tomorrow) Colorado legislators are trying to remedy that problem.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association continues its tone deaf post-explosion opposition. That organization has a history of fighting regulations tooth and nail then embracing them as a defense later on, as in the case of opposing federal methane rules while touting the very state rules COGA once opposed. Sometimes hypocrisy knows no bounds.
Local regulators don’t get a pass on this issue either. While some municipalities are fighting for the right to partially regulate drilling activity within their boundaries, others like the one where the fatal explosion occurred, are allowing new building near existing drilling and production activity. In Firestone, that home was allowed to be built 175 feet from an existing well.
Even when violators are caught, they’re sometimes let off easily. Witness Dennis Webb’s Daily Sentinel story yesterday about Petro Mex Resources, where the COGCC has agreed to waive $160,000 in fines over a leaky well.
No maps, too few inspectors, a “Hell no, unless it passes, then we’ll act like we own it” attitude from the industry, much production in the hand of underfinanced small operators who then apparently get to skate when faced with violations and fines.
The definition of “robust” in the COGCC’s statement must come from Bill Clinton.