Are Monkey-Wrenchers Stopping the Front Range From Mapping Pipelines?

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The Front Range is fired up once again over oil and gas development as Lafayette, Erie, Broomfield and Thornton consider stronger regulations — namely, plans to map pipelines within their city limits.

The plans date back to the wake of the April 17 explosion that left two dead after an abandoned flowline — essentially a small pipeline — leaked natural gas into the basement of a Firestone home. Since then, Governor John Hickenlooper has ordered the mapping of every flowline within 1,000 feet of a residence, and state Democrats led by Representative Mike Foote tried unsuccessfully to get comprehensive mapping on the state books.

Now, some local representatives are echoing Foote's plan to map all flowlines and pipelines in their jurisdiction. Proponents like Erie trustee Mark Gruber say that the measure would allow homeowners to know what is on their property and prevent developers from accidentally tampering with pipelines and flowlines.

But the local proposals have drawn the ire of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry group, which offered a departure from its usual criticism that regulatory measures go too far.

“There were concerns among some in the industry about putting out a road map of where all of our infrastructure is in a world where people have threatened — and, in some cases, have damaged or committed illegal acts against — our infrastructure,” COGA President and CEO Dan Haley told the Denver Post last week.

Haley implied that people are intentionally damaging pipelines and flowlines — and further, that the problem could grow if the public is given full information about their locations on the Front Range.

When asked for documented instances of oil and gas infrastructure being tampered with, COGA referred Westword to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which collects data on oil and gas development and incidents of mismanagement, like spills and leaks.

"I can verify that vandalism/tampering does occur from time to time," says COGCC spokesman Todd Hartman.

"I can verify that vandalism/tampering does occur from time to time," says COGCC spokesman Todd Hartman.

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"In our data sets, however, we don't have a specific way to sort incidents by such terms, so I can't quantify the frequency with which it occurs," he continues. "We have seen spills where valves were opened by vandals for whatever reason, and we have enough anecdotal understanding to know that these things happen, perhaps a few times per year."

Is this happening enough to elicit concern from government officials? Hartman wouldn't say, but Erie trustee Gruber says it's nothing to worry about.

"I think that that is a far-fetched argument," says Gruber, who represents part of Weld County, which leads the state in oil and gas production. "As far as I know, there has been no eco-terror in the town of Erie. And the argument that someone might be stealing natural gas from a pipeline, well, it seems to me as soon as they tap into a pipeline, they have put their lives at risk."

Pipelines are usually underground and can be highly pressurized, which could make opening valves and other methods of monkey-wrenching dangerous for those involved. Gruber says that deterrent is enough, and adds that the industry has its own safeguards for pipeline protection, such as putting them underground.

Activists in Front Range communities who support the pipeline-mapping proposals say they are unaware of any "direct action," including sabotage, taking place.

"As far as using the [mapping] information for nefarious purposes, of whatever, I don’t think there’s really any chance of that," says Carl Erickson, a Weld County resident who works with Weld Air and Water. "Civil disobedience has always been kind of a back-burner issue...and we're not talking about physical disobedience, only legal disobedience through the courts."

Denver activist Lauren Swain, who volunteers with 350 Colorado and other local organizations, says that she knows of no sabotage taking place on the Front Range. "The only direct action I know of taking place at drilling sites is activists projecting words like 'toxic' on the huge beige walls surrounding the polluting fracking facilities in the town of Erie."

Even though eco-terrorism does not appear to be threatening oil and gas operations at large, Colorado Republicans sponsored a bill in January that would have elevated the crime of "knowingly destroying, breaking, removing, or otherwise tampering with equipment associated with oil or gas gathering operation" from a Class 2 misdemeanor to a Class 6 felony.

But the City of Lafayette, which did not respond to Westword's request for a comment, went the other direction in 2014 with a proposal that would have legalized anti-fracking civil disobedience and offered immunity to nonviolent protesters. The ordinance was tabled indefinitely, but shows just how far some representatives were willing to go to limit oil and gas interests. Now they'll have to settle with mapping infrastructure in their boundaries — if COGA and the state don't legally challenge the stronger measures.