Oil and gas regulators are poised to write new rules this week requiring companies to test, map and remove some of their underground lines, which regularly leak planet-warming gases and sometimes explode.
The new rules will be among the first to be updated since lawmakers this year changed the mission for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to protect public health, safety and the environment. The COGCC’s previous mission largely prioritized fostering oil and gas development.
Over the next three days, the nine-member commission will review COGCC staff recommendations that have been in the works since April. The hearings are based in Greeley, which is in Weld County, the state’s top-producing oil and gas region. The commission will be weighing concerns raised by the industry and demands from environmental groups before it is expected to finalize new rules by the end of the week.
“We’re doing everything we can to ensure that a balance is achieved,” Jeff Robbins, the director for the COGCC, told KUNC on Tuesday.
The proposed regulations come after the 2017 home explosion in Firestone that injured Erin Martinez and killed her husband, Mark Martinez, and her brother, Joey Irwin. The home was built next to a severed flowline, a type of pipeline that collects and moves oil and gas between wells and to storage tanks, that was leaking gas into the basement.
In a growing state where new housing developments and oil and gas production sites are creeping ever closer to one another, the explosion renewed calls for greater regulation of the industry. Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration updated the rules, requiring additional testing and location reporting to the Call 811 program. But Hickenlooper also opposed public mapping of lines, citing security concerns and the potential for theft and vandalism.
Democrats, who took control of state government in 2018, passed Senate Bill 181 in April, which required the COGCC to go back to the drawing board and write rules that reflected the commission’s new mandate to protect public health and safety.
What the new rules will look like is being debated. It remains to be seen how detailed the maps will be, what types of pipelines will be mapped and when and where certain pipelines should be dug up and removed.
Currently, oil and gas companies are required to report the start-point and end-points of flowlines to the 811 “call before you dig” program. The COGCC staff is proposing to require that oil and gas companies provide location information for the entire pipeline to the COGCC so that it can be posted online for public inspection.
Environmental groups want to see a detailed, high-resolution map of all pipelines. They say such maps are necessary for people to know whether they are living near pipelines and for city planners to know where homes should and should not be built.
But oil and gas industry representatives want the maps with less detail. Detailed maps, they say, could cause illegal trespassing and vandalism or cause people to endanger themselves by relying on the maps rather than the Call 811 program. They also say such requirements, if applied to all confirmed 7,000 miles of existing flowlines, could violate constitutional protections against retroactive regulations.
Another big question is what the COGCC will do about an unregulated class of pipelines known as gathering lines. These pipelines are larger than flowlines and can carry oil and gas to processing facilities. Companies are not required to report where these lines are located and there is no state permit required to build them. The pipelines currently are inspected for safety by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, which has six inspectors also responsible for other utility infrastructure. In 2018, a gathering line explosion in Texas killed a 3-year-old girl.
Oil and gas representatives say the COGCC cannot regulate gathering pipelines because it does not have the authority to do so from the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Julie Murphy, the COGCC’s chief of staff, has said the agency does not have jurisdiction over the pipelines. Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, told The Colorado Independent on Tuesday that lawmakers are “looking at all of the different pipeline regulations and authorities — including for gathering lines — to see if there are changes that need to happen” for the 2020 legislative session, which begins Jan. 8.
The COGCC will also decide what companies are required to do when they are done using the pipelines. Currently, state law allows companies to leave pipelines in the ground when they abandon a well. The COGCC is proposing that companies remove most of these pipelines, unless doing so would cause more environmental damage than leaving them underground or if the lines are within a certain distance of other active pipelines, among other exemptions from removal.
The COGCC is also proposing that pipelines be tested more frequently. Environmental groups support the change. But the industry has pushed back, saying such testing can stress the pipes and weaken them.
During a hearing Tuesday night at the University of Northern Colorado, several people said the proposed rules are concerning. Rep. Perry Buck, a Republican from Windsor, said she worries new rules would overregulate the industry, calling them part of a “backdoor political agenda that seeks to stifle oil and gas development in the state.”
Meanwhile, environmental groups are pushing the COGCC to adopt the proposed rules. Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director with WildEarth Guardians, called them a good step in the right direction. “Gaps have led to tragedy,” Nichols said. “This is about ensuring that Colorado has the safest oil and gas rules on the books.”
This story was updated Nov. 21 to specify in the headline that the rulemaking deals with flow lines. The previous headline said pipelines.