Regulators Target Oil and Gas Flowlines in Latest SB 181 Rule Change

An oil and gas facility near homes in Erie.
An oil and gas facility near homes in Erie. Chase Woodruff
It’s a word that most Coloradans had never heard before a fatal home explosion in Firestone made headlines in 2017: “flowline,” an industry term for a relatively short section of pipeline that carries oil and gas from a well to nearby processing equipment or storage tanks.

In Firestone, a severed flowline leaked colorless, odorless methane gas into the basement of Erin Martinez’s home, leading to an explosion that killed her husband, Mark, and her brother, Joey Irwin, and left Erin badly burned. Now, as Colorado regulators embark on a major overhaul of oil and gas rules, one of their first targets is an updated set of flowline regulations aimed at preventing something like Firestone from happening again.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission took public comment on the proposed rules at a meeting in Greeley on Tuesday, November 19. After meeting with industry and environmental groups over the past several months, the commission is expected to make final revisions and approve the regulations at hearings held later this week.

“The only thing this commission has to be concerned with is complying with the law,” Carl Erickson, a Greeley environmental activist, told commissioners. “That law being Senate Bill 181.”

SB 181, the long-awaited oil and gas reform bill passed by the state legislature in April, instructed COGCC regulators to place a higher priority on health, safety and environmental considerations in its oversight of industry operations, and included a section specifically requiring the adoption of stronger flowline rules.

Following the adoption earlier this year of so-called 500 Series rules that overhauled certain COGCC administrative practices, the new flowline regulations are the first changes of the post-SB 181 era to bear directly on industry operations. They would require operators to publicly disclose the locations of flowlines, perform pressure testing to ensure their integrity and, in some cases, remove flowlines completely when a site is abandoned.

Martinez, who will testify before the commission later this week, submitted pre-written testimony that calls the proposed rules a “good start,” but argues that they “need to be strengthened to better protect public safety in the operation, reactivation and abandonment of oil and gas wells and flowlines.”

“Individuals want and deserve to know what is on or beneath their property,” Martinez continues in her testimony. “For one reason or another, they may not want to live where oil and gas wells and flowlines are on or next to their property.”

The public disclosure of flowline locations was previously rejected by the COGCC under Governor John Hickenlooper in a 2018 rulemaking conducted in response to the Firestone explosion. Oil and gas groups argued at the time that publicly mapping flowlines could leave them vulnerable to vandals and even terrorists, and have repeated those claims in the run-up to the latest rulemaking. They say the new flowline rules enacted under Hickenlooper are enough to protect health and safety.

“Regulating simply to regulate is bad policy and one this body should avoid,” Nick Kliebenstein of the pro-industry Front Range Energy Alliance told commissioners Tuesday.

Along with several environmental advocacy groups, Martinez has asked the commission to require flowlines to be publicly mapped at a scale of 1:1,200, which would allow residents to view their locations to within 100 feet of accuracy. Industry groups, by contrast, want maps to be no more precise than a 1:24,000 scale, or 2,000-foot increments. For now, the commission’s proposed rules will make locations at a scale of 1:6,000 available online, though members of the public will be able to visit the agency’s office and view more detailed flowline maps in person.

Environmental groups also pushed the COGCC to use the flowline rulemaking to regulate so-called gathering lines — another, larger class of pipelines that collect oil and gas from across a wider area and transport them “downstream” to production facilities. These largely unregulated lines are a growing concern for activists worried about health and safety risks; a gas gathering line was responsible for a fatal home explosion last year in Texas that bore similarities to the Firestone incident. The rules being considered this week, however, don't include any new regulations on gathering lines.

Stakeholder groups will make formal presentations to commissioners during hearings to be held at the University of North Colorado in Greeley over the next two days, and on Friday if necessary. As the era of SB 181 regulation begins in earnest, activists are determined to make sure the commission follows through on a law they spent years trying to pass.

“There are thousands of miles of these flowlines, which remain unmapped and unregulated,” read a statement released Tuesday by a coalition of environmental groups, including 350 Colorado and the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans. “It is imperative that the COGCC adopt rules that mandate comprehensive mapping and databasing of all flowlines in our communities and future communities.”
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.
Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff