By Bruce Finley
State regulators of the oil and gas industry on Tuesday set tougher rules and launched a task force after six months of grappling over how to protect people and the environment from myriad underground pipelines, which regularly leak and explode, as fossil fuels extraction expands around Front Range cities.
But the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission regulators still face a difficult challenge in their push for closer inspections to increase safety: "How do we know if we are in the right place to detect leaks if we don't know where the lines are?" Commissioner Ashley Ager said in an all-day hearing.
Industry officials have testified that they do not know the locations of hundreds of miles of existing pipelines, particularly what they call "upstream" lines near wells not regulated by the federal government. They say mapping all existing lines could be costly. PDC Energy production manager Brian Murray told commissioners older pipelines that do not contain steel and abandoned wells plugged with cement would complicate mapping. Many pipelines are essentially "impossible to go and find," Murray said, noting PDC runs 2,600 wells. "We do not have any geospatial information on any of our lines," Murray said.
Gov. John Hickenlooper responded to last year's fatal Firestone house explosion by ordering companies to find and test all pipelines within 1,000 feet of homes -- prompting companies to send start-point and end-point data, but no maps showing where pipelines run. On Tuesday, Hickenlooper issued a statement after seven of the nine COGCC commissioners voted unanimously for a revised set of rules. "We believe these new rules are another important step in the aftermath of the Firestone tragedy."
Under Colorado's updated rules, companies must inform COGCC regulators where pipelines installed after May will be. They'll have to provide information on old lines they know about by October 2019 and, if they learn more in the future, let state regulators know using forms that are posted on a website. Major leaks must be reported within 24 hours.
A new task force will explore, over the next year, inspection technology that companies may be required to use to detect leaks and locate existing pipelines. Industry attorneys insisted on pushing the controversial inspection methods matter to a "stakeholders" process.
This COGCC rule-making marks state regulators' latest effort to manage an intensifying oil and gas boom concentrated along Colorado's heavily populated Front Range. An industry shift toward large multi-well pads with horizontal boreholes favors more and more pipelines linking wells to storage and processing facilities -- including lines near homes and sites where developers plan to build more homes to sustain Colorado's population growth.
The revised rules let operators refuse to share pipeline location information with local governments. Colorado Oil and Gas Association attorneys pressed the case that all pipelines are "critical infrastructure" that legally can be kept secret to guard against terrorism. COGA president Dan Haley praised the new rules. "Without question these tough new regulations will further enhance the safety and integrity of our pipeline infrastructure," Haley said.
COGCC director Matt Lepore acknowledged public worries, and he struggled to answer Commissioner James Hawkins' question Tuesday on what the benefits would be of requiring companies to locate existing pipelines, at least those within 500 feet of homes.
"For the most part, my view of the benefits is that it is useful information. Gaining that information ... is better than the status quo. The rules that are in place today ... if followed carefully, provide a certain level of protection. The new rules will provide greater protection. Knowing where every flowline is may be an additional bit of protection," Lepore said.
"There is a hunger -- a fear among those living in places near oil and gas development that has occurred or will occur," he said. "The ability to log onto a website easily and pull up a screen-shot of their home or their neighbor's or mother's or children's home would give comfort."
Local government leaders wanted more. Two men were killed and a woman was seriously injured in the April Firestone explosion in part because a severed underground pipeline leaking near a home was not known to residents. "Operators should be required to provide geospacial data for existing flowlines as well," Boulder County chief planner Kim Sanchez told commissioners, speaking for a coalition of cities where leaders contend pipeline locations must be known for emergency response and growth planning.
"Industry constructed or acquired the lines. They are responsible for them. They should know where the lines are or be required to locate them accurately," Sanchez said later in an email. "The question is, will these rules help prevent another Firestone?"
Colorado Oil and Gas Accountability Project attorney Paul Zogg challenged provisions in the new rules for keeping comprehensive pipeline locational information confidential as a pre-condition for sharing it with local governments. Cities including Greeley, Longmont and Broomfield need to know because oil and gas operations are expanding near residents, Zogg said.
"We need to help people, like those in Firestone, to protect themselves from risks that are in their neighborhood. ... We are seeing more development in urban areas, and we are seeing more concentrated development -- large well pads with multiple wells on them. This reflects an overall increased risk to safety. ... Broad interpretations of confidentiality are inappropriate. We know there are leaks. They are not visible. ... If you just abandon them, you may be leaving gas and liquid contaminants in the ground that create risks going into the future."
The stakeholder process, aimed at providing recommendations for policy updates or new rules within one year, initially was to be focused on technology for detecting leaks and spills from underground pipelines.
Hawkins proposed, with support from others, that industry and municipal officials also undertake "a risk-based analysis" of pipelines that present the worst threats to people.
"There are older wells and older flowlines that are a larger risk to the public. And they are closer to existing homes," Hawkins said. "That is a good starting point -- to try to reduce the amount of risk they represent."
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