No Winners on Key Issues in New Oil and Gas Industry Regulations

It was standing room only at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission meeting to decide the future of flowlines on February 13.
It was standing room only at the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission meeting to decide the future of flowlines on February 13. Nora Olabi / Westword
In the wake of the fatal explosion in Firestone, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has been under pressure from activists and local governments to reform the way the oil and gas industry does business. That pressure continued to mount at a COGCC meeting on February 13, when dozens of stakeholders crammed into a meeting room for their last chance to influence new state flowline regulations for the industry.

The two big takeaways from the nine-hour meeting were this: Both sides of the fracking issue walked away with some gains, and a stakeholder committee will be created this year. Key issues for stakeholders — representatives of the industry, local government, non-governmental organizations and the state — are leak detection and mapping technologies for flowlines across the state.

"I think it's been difficult and challenging, and I know there will be people leaving this disappointed that we didn't address everything we should have, and maybe that is so," says Commissioner Howard Boigon, co-vice chair of the regulatory commission. "In this sausage-making process, it's not always pretty, and it certainly doesn't satisfy everybody, but I think we made a good effort, and I'm confident these are the most comprehensive rules addressing flowlines anywhere in the country."

The most complicated (and costly) issue that COGCC commissioners grappled with was whether to map flowlines in the state. Currently, COGCC doesn't require any mapping. And with much of the flowline infrastructure dating back decades, two critical questions arise: Who knows where they're buried, and how far are operators obligated to go to find that information?

click to enlarge
Dabarti CGI/Shutterstock.com
Under the approved rules, which could be filed with the Colorado Secretary of State as early as this week, the exact location of the entire length — or alignment — of a flowline would be reported to the COGCC only if it's installed on or after May 1. Prior to that date, operators would report alignments under three circumstances: if the information is known by the operator, if it exists in current records or is available in records held by previous ownership, or if it becomes known after disclosure filings with the state.

Industry representatives say it would be impossible to learn the alignments of every flowline and that many of those records simply do not exist anymore.

"I think your concept of a continuing obligation to supplement and update the form if new information becomes available or becomes known, it's problematic and creates practical issues and difficulties," says Dave Neslin, who represented Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and PDC Energy Inc. at the COGCC meeting. "Under your suggestion, you'd have to update the form every time you do the pressure test, but I do think there are some practical issues and difficulties with this concept."

With so many high-profile explosions and leaks, several local governments along the Front Range have called for complex mapping for emergency planning and land-use purposes. Under the approved rules, that's not likely to happen (or at least not anytime soon), given the gap in records and lack of pressure on operators to go out of their way to locate line alignments. In the end, some information is better than none; cities and counties will have restricted access to available flowline location information within their jurisdictions.

"Industry not knowing where the lines are is both the problem and the point of this request," says Kim Sanchez, chief planner at Boulder County. "There's no reason that all flowline data installed in the past and in the future should not be supplied by operators. Industry has installed or acquired the flowlines. Industry is responsible for them. They should know accurately where they are and should be required to provide that data.

After more than a dozen leaks and explosions in the state since the Firestone tragedy, COGCC Director Matt Lepore says that mapping every flowline in the state doesn't automatically mean better public safety. Lepore also revealed a surprising new detail that the severed pipeline that caused the Firestone home explosion had been on the developer's map and had been marked for relocation.

"Knowing where every single flowline is may be an incremental bit of additional protection or comfort. I guess I honestly feel it mostly falls into the latter category," Lepore says. "There's a hunger, a fear, among those who are living in places where oil and gas development has occurred or will occur, and the ability to log on to a website easily and pull up a screenshot of their house or neighborhood or mother's or children's homes would give comfort."

Of course, local governments must first opt in to receive flowline information from the COGCC. The data will only be shared with the listed local government designee and only upon signing a confidentiality agreement, since COGCC and the industry both claim flowlines are "critical infrastructure," the locations of which should be kept secret for national security purposes. And to top it off, local governments would have to create their own mapping database, which means added technology expenses for that municipality.

The second drawn-out issue debated by COGCC commissioners was whether to include optical gas imaging for underground flowlines, something that added to the January draft proposal but has since been removed. Industry representatives convinced the commission that the technology would be costly and ineffective for all but large underground leaks, which should be detected by existing integrity management plans.

"If it were easy to fly a drone over hundreds of miles of pipeline and detect low-level subsurface releases of hydrocarbons — if that were relatively easy and relatively affordable, then doing that [inspection] in addition to something else makes a lot sense to me, but I don't think we know that's the case," Lepore says. "I think I made the assumption that it was relatively easy; industry tells me that I am incorrect. Now it's on there as an option."

Optical gas imaging will not be required, and current rules state that only one type of flowline inspection is necessary for the state. (Two of the four state-approved methods only require an inspection once every three years rather than annual testing.) Detection technology is an option, not a requirement under the new rules.

"I will not fully discount the assertion that certain methodologies have their limitations," Lepore says. "Certain methodologies may not identify a small leak over time, so, yes, we understand no one of those three or four [state-approved inspection methods] are perfect for all situations, and at some point in the future, I think using two of them might get you much closer to every single leak that happens."

The technology debate isn't over, and there's a chance to revisit the issue as early as 2019. A stakeholder committee will be created by COGCC, though no timeline has been set, to shape the state standard for effective leak detection technology so that no one will have to live through another Firestone.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Nora Olabi covers general and breaking news for Westword with an emphasis on politics and local government. Prior to making her way to the Front Range and joining Westword in 2017, she worked at major Houston newspapers. She's a proud Houstonian who's acclimating to snow and mountain living.
Contact: Nora Olabi