New rules call for thousands of miles of underground oil and gas lines to be mapped and made public

Colorado oil and gas regulators adopted new rules for mapping, testing and cleaning up flow lines

The 15-well site Woolley Becky Sosa development on County Line Road, operated by Crestone Peak Resourced. The drilling is in Weld County but the houses are in Boulder County. (Photo by Adam Stielstra.)
A drill site in Weld County across the county line from houses in Boulder County. The COGCC on Thursday, Nov. 22, 2019, adopted new rules requiring companies to map, test and remove flow lines. (Photo by Adam Stielstra)

Colorado oil and gas regulators on Thursday wrote new rules that will for the first time make online maps of underground oil and gas lines available for public inspection. 

The rules are seen as a win for residents who have concerns about living on top of oil and gas infrastructure, which can leak planet-warming gases and sometimes explode. The new rules will map flow lines, which carry oil and gas between wells to storage facilities and other equipment. 

The 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 explosion, caused by a severed flow line, triggered increased scrutiny of underground oil and gas infrastructure at a time when housing development on the Front Range and booming oil and gas production are creeping closer together. 

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on Thursday wrapped up a two-day hearing in Greeley ahead of writing the new rules, which are among the first since Democrats passed an overhaul of the state’s oil and gas regulations. Senate Bill 181, signed into law in April, changed the mission of the agency from one that largely fostered the industry to one that seeks to regulate it. Previous flow line rules were adopted in 2017 and did not map the lines. 

The highlights 

Colorado oil and gas companies have reported an estimated 17,300 miles of flow lines across the state. The COGCC has registered about 7,000 miles of those flow lines so far. 

The COGCC will publish maps of these flow lines on their website with an accuracy no less than plus or minus 25 feet. The online maps will have a scale of greater than or equal to 1:6,000. Below is an example of a non-existent flow line provided by the COGCC at 1:6,000 scale. 

A map of a fake flow line in a neighborhood used to show how 1:6,000 scale will appear on the COGCC website. (Screenshot provided by the COGCC)

People will be able to access more detailed maps by going directly to the COGCC and the 811 Program, known as the “call before you dig” program. COGCC commissioners wanted the online maps to be somewhat vague so that people would not rely on them when digging on their property. This was also part of a compromise between environmental groups seeking high-resolution maps and industry seeking less detailed maps to prevent vandalism and theft. 

The rules will also require oil and gas companies to dig up their flow lines and remove them when they are finished extracting oil and gas from a well unless they can prove to the director of the COGCC that they meet certain exemptions. The purpose of the exemptions is so that companies don’t create more environmental damage and safety risks by removing the lines. If the lines are removed, the rules require a third-party inspector to certify that the lines have been removed in accordance with the law. 

Gathering lines, a largely unregulated class of lines that carry oil and gas to processing facilities, will not be mapped, despite the wishes of some environmental groups. The COGCC says it does not have full authority over these lines. Lawmakers are considering designating the COGCC with the authority to regulate the lines.   

The rules are expected to be published in the Colorado register on Friday. Oil and gas operators have until December 2020 to submit GIS data for lines. 

What people think about the new rules  

At the start of the two-day hearing, Jeff Robbins, the director of the COGCC, said he was trying to strike a “balance.” 

“We worked with environmental, industry, local government, homeowners and other stakeholders from across the state in a collaborative manner to arrive at sensible solutions that will deliver stronger protections and more accurate and publicly available mapping information, and help to increase public safety as a result of this flowline rulemaking,” Robbins said in a statement Thursday.

One group that for years has been calling for public maps of flow lines was happy with the new rules. 

“We’re thrilled about the comprehensive mapping. Homeowners and local developers will have a full picture of this information,” said Sara Loflin, the executive director for the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, or LOGIC. 

Ahead of the meeting, one industry group, Defend Colorado, was citing legal concerns about retroactive regulations. But after the rules passed, oil and gas industry representatives said they had some concerns about the removal of flow lines, but were generally pleased with the process.

“Now, with these new rules on public mapping and abandonment protocols, Colorado’s tough rules are even more stringent and will hopefully continue to assure Coloradans of the ongoing safety of flowlines,” said Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, or COGA.