Last-minute bill to map oil and gas lines passes committee

A last-minute bill meant to ease public fears after the fatal Firestone home explosion passed a House committee hearing today over Republican opposition.

Democrats are rushing in the last days of the legislative session to pass a bill requiring the mapping of oil and gas lines in response to public demand to know whether such lines were near their homes. Investigators this week determined that the fatal house explosion last month, which killed two residents and critically injured another, was the result of severed but uncapped line that filled the home’s basement with highly combustible, odorless gas.

The bill passed the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee on a 6-3 party line vote. The session ends next Wednesday.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Mike Foote of Lafayette and Steve Lebsock of Thornton, would require oil and gas operators to notify the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) and relevant local governments of the location of all oil and gas lines, whether active, dormant or planned. This data would then be mapped and made publicly available on the COGCC website.

In an interview before the hearing, Republican Rep. Lori Saine, who is not a committee member but whose district includes Firestone, invoked her community’s grief in her opposition to the bill.

“It’s really unfortunate and frustrating that there’s legislation being introduced right now, before the investigation that has concluded,” she said. “I feel like they’re using our grieving community to spike a political football.”

Republican committee members Tim Leonard of Evergreen and Cole Wist of Centennial, who was assigned to the committee for the day in place of Rep. Stephen Humphrey of Severance, said they agreed with the bill’s premise but had concerns about rushing its implementation. “It seems to me that the cart is somewhat before the horse,” said Wist. Republican Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs cast the third dissenting vote.

Industry groups also strongly objected to the bill, saying that it would interfere with and potentially slow the implementation of an order Gov. John Hickenlooper issued Monday in response to the investigation’s findings.

Colorado Oil and Gas Association President Dan Haley said that Hickenlooper’s order, which requires that operators inspect all existing flowlines within 1,000 feet of homes by the end of the month, already requires operators to disclose the locations of such lines. Flowlines move oil and gas away from a wellhead.

He also said that the bill could cause jurisdictional conflicts. but when pressed by Democratic Rep. Adrienne Benavidez of Commerce City, did not describe what kind of conflicts he meant.

“Tell me how mapping of these and letting the local governments know causes a jurisdictional conflict or an oversight,” Benavidez demanded.

“I believe some of the answers to that question are being hashed out right now by the COGCC,” Haley replied. Both Haley and Colorado Petroleum Council Executive Director Tracee Bentley expressed frustration with the limited time they were given to review the bill.

The bill’s sponsors argued that their legislation is more comprehensive than what the governor’s order requires. During a press conference Wednesday discussing his order, which does not require that operators disclose pipeline data that could be used for mapping, Hickenlooper said, ““I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say we want to know where those lines are.”

He said that such a project likely would require legislation, which was perhaps unlikely with the legislative session coming to a close on May 10.

The governor’s order was translated by the COGCC into a Notice to Operators mandating that they inspect and pressure test all active flowlines and ensure that any inactive lines have been properly capped and “abandoned” according to agency protocol.

But the COGCC’s order only applies to flow lines. The bill will also address gathering lines and larger transmission pipelines. Gathering lines gather and transport oil and gas from multiple facilities after it has already been metered. They are regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, not the COGCC, which bill supporters say necessitates the legislation.

The COGCC’s order also will require operators to disclose GPS data about both endpoints of these lines. But this would not provide sufficient data for mapping the lines’ path because they do not always follow a straight path.

A lack of comprehensive pipeline data is not unique to Colorado. In Pennsylvania, a maze of unmapped gathering lines in rural parts of the state caused concern for state regulators.

County officials in one part of the state, Bradford County, decided to take matters into their own hands and started mapping their own lines.

Scott Molnar, who started mapping the county’s gathering lines when its gas boom began in 2007, told The Colorado Independent this week that finding older lines was quite a challenge. “We had no idea what we were going to be encountering but it turned into quite the network,” he said. “Honestly we don’t know that we’ve got them all.” He said the process, which is ongoing, would have taken one person an entire year to do from scratch.

Supporters of the bill expressed fear and uncertainty following the Firestone explosion.

John Dulles, a Broomfield resident whose home is near several old vertical wells, called the bill “a modest proposal.” Calling himself “not an extremist in any way,” he said, “I think it’s a proposal that will make us feel safer.”

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Environmental attorney Matt Sura called the bill “an important response and a necessary response.”

He noted that there are many cases in which even oil and gas operators don’t have specific information about where pipelines are. This is particularly true for older wells drilled in the 1950s and ‘60s, which may no longer even have an operator of record.

“This opposition frankly confounds me,” Foote said in his closing remarks. He characterized the industry response as “Something like, ‘We want to do this, we are going to do this, but we don’t want you to tell us to do this.’” He said that the oil and gas industry refused to engage in the drafting of the legislation.

The bill now heads to the House Appropriations Committee. Its chances of passing in the Republican-majority Senate are likely slim.

Photo credit: Loren Kerns, Creative Commons, Flickr 


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