Report Offers No Clues Into What Caused Explosion at Oil Well Near Windsor

Report Offers No Clues Into What Caused Explosion at Oil Well Near Windsor
Last year was a bad one for the oil and gas industry. Numerous explosions, spills and leaks occurred, including the fatal Firestone explosion and an explosion near Windsor that severely injured a field worker.

Coloradans are calling on state officials, lawmakers and the industry to make regulatory changes. But a recently published preliminary report that was supposed to shed light on the Windsor explosion in Weld County has rubbed salt in the wounds of Coloradans looking for answers into issues plaguing drill sites around the state.

Extraction Oil & Gas was the operator of the Windsor drilling site when it went up in flames on December 22. More than two months later, the company still doesn't know exactly what happened that night, according to its preliminary report. A company spokesperson did not return multiple calls for comment.

The vague, one-and-a-half-page preliminary report into the Windsor explosion was filed with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state regulatory agency, on February 23, and the investigation is still ongoing. Extraction Oil & Gas is conducting the investigation alongside the federal government and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the latter of which is investigating the workplace injury involving the oil-field worker who suffered second- and third-degree burns. Watch footage of the explosion here and here.

"These investigations are complicated, highly technical, and several parties are involved, including the federal government in this case," says Todd Hartman, communications director at the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, which serves as the umbrella state agency for COGCC. "They take time. Importantly, as the report indicates, the operator is using what it does know at this point and taking corrective and protective actions [see Part 5 of the report, which is at the end of this post]. So even without a precise cause yet, the operator is using what it's learned so far to help prevent a repeat episode."

Extraction Oil & Gas currently has permits pending with the COGCC for six drilling sites with a total of 84 wells in Broomfield, just an hour southwest of the Windsor site. (The company also has permits pending on new sites in Weld and Adams counties.) Broomfield residents are furious about what they have called a lack of information in the preliminary investigative report and are concerned about their community if those permits are approved. Most of the drilling sites are about a quarter-mile from homes. Since 2016, when the sites were first proposed, residents have risen in fierce opposition to fracking near their homes.

"[The report] absolutely told us nothing, because they don't even know what caused [the explosion]. That's what we gleaned from it," says Broomfield Ward 5 councilmember Guyleen Castriotta, who was elected in November on an anti-fracking campaign. "We still don't have answers. It's not making anybody feel more at ease. You can’t say you're best in class and still have an explosion ... [The wells] are going to be plopped right in the middle of neighborhoods, and I'm not feeling good about it.”

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The February report listed what the company has called "potential contributing factors" that led to the Windsor explosion. The mostly vague contributing factors include fuel and ignition sources. (Static electricity and "unknown worker activities" are listed as potential ignition sources, and weather was listed as one of five contributing factors.)

The corrective actions that Extraction Oil & Gas claims to have made since the Windsor explosion include some improved ventilation, monitoring, automated tank gauging, training and "enhanced procedures."

Broomfield City Manager Charles Ozaki asked the COGCC to leave Extraction Oil & Gas's permits as pending until the company can meet its regulatory obligations under an operator agreement that it signed with Broomfield last year. The city has a long list of concerns, including everything from the company's traffic and waste management plans to missing details in its water-quality plan and response plans in case of an accident — like Windsor's. Under the agreement, Extraction Oil & Gas's plans are subject to city review and approval. The city wants to know exactly what went wrong in Windsor before it approves any plans so it can build in protections in the company's emergency-response plan. Details like the location of fire hydrants, evacuation routes and regional cooperation are just some of the deficiencies in Extraction's emergency plan, Broomfield officials say.

"The COGCC's own order indicates that the permits have to comply with our agreement, and as of yet, they can't comply with our agreement because we haven't approved the comprehensive drilling plan," says Tami Yellico, director of strategic initiatives at the City and County of Broomfield. "There are a large number of issues that are not included in that emergency plan handed to the city. We were given a very general emergency plan that didn't have a lot of detail or a lot of requirements for Extraction."

Even though the COGCC's own forms require Extraction to conform with its local agreement, it's unclear whether COGCC will approve the permits anyway.

"We do get to approve this before you get to move forward," Castriotta says about Extraction's proposed drilling sites. "Right now, we're asking the COGCC not to approve or consider the forms until we've sorted out all of the problems with their drilling plan. We’re still waiting for an answer.”

Broomfield residents approved ballot Issue 301 in November — against the well-financed opposition campaign backed by industry groups — that would give the city and county land-use authority over oil and gas activity, as well as the power to require that all development be conducted in a manner that "does not adversely impact" the health, safety and welfare of residents and the environment. With these newly enshrined powers, the city is working to codify exactly what its authority would look like so that any new development would have to meet its stringent standards.

But the industry hasn't taken kindly to local authorities asserting jurisdiction, and the COGCC has made clear that state law preempts local law. The Colorado Supreme Court struck down local fracking moratoriums and bans in Colorado in 2016, adding that regulatory jurisdiction falls with the state. Thornton is facing a lawsuit from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association after its city council increased flowline setbacks to 750 feet from homes, which is more than the state's setback of 500 feet, and increased required operator liability insurance.

The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled last year that the COGCC is bound to put public health and safety first when permitting oil and gas developments, and that has emboldened Broomfield to start pushing the bounds of local regulation using Issue 301. For now, the case is pending on appeal with the Colorado Supreme Court.

Broomfield City Council is holding a public hearing at 5:15 p.m. on March 16 in council chambers to update residents on the proposed fracking by Extraction Oil & Gas and a second operator, Crestone Peak Resources.

Read the full report below:

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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