Following Home Explosion, Colorado Lawmakers Explore Regulatory Updates
Governor John Hickenlooper wants the state to reevaluate how it inspects oil and gas wells in the wake of a fatal home explosion in Firestone. An oil and gas flow line was found to be severed and leaking methane and other gases. Two people died and another was critically injured in the explosion.
State officials are still trying to get the full picture of what went wrong. But that hasn't stopped the governor from ordering energy companies to inspect thousands of flow lines within 1,000 feet of occupied buildings, and to ensure that abandoned lines are properly marked and sealed.
"I think we're going to reevaluate our entire inspection process and try and look at what should an inspector have noticed. Because -- look at the pictures. It just looks likes any old wellhead," said Hickenlooper. "There is no way of knowing this particular line goes in the other direction and is actually severed. You can't tell that at the wellhead."
Anadarko Petroleum owns the well and there is still an investigation into when and how the pipe was severed. Hickenlooper said a public map marking all existing and abandoned oil and gas lines could help prevent these types of instances in the future.
"I think that's just a matter of a longer-term project that will probably take a couple of years. We are going to do everything we can to make sure that homes are 100 percent safe," he said.
But with only a few days left in the legislative session, it's unlikely anything will be done at the statehouse this year. In the meantime, there may be some rule changes that could happen without the approval of lawmakers.
"We've been saying for quite a while that oil and gas operations in the middle of neighborhoods is not a good idea," said Democratic Rep. Mike Foote of Lafayette.
Foote introduced a failed bill this session that would have increased setback distances between oil and gas wells and schools. Existing regulations say companies can't drill within 500 feet of an occupied building or 1,000 feet from schools.
But that setback legislation only goes in one direction.
Developers can and do build homes closer to existing wells. The home in Firestone sat less than 200 feet from the wellhead.
"Accidents can happen, and tragedies can happen," Foote said. "We kept hearing time and time again from oil and gas industry executives that everything is safe there's nothing to worry about."
Republican Rep. Lori Saine lives in Firestone. Her daughter attends elementary school near the site of the explosion. She noted that the Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District investigators concluded the home's distance from the well was not the cause of the explosion.
"This is one of those freak isolated accidents that hopefully we can avoid in the future," she said. "We do need to do a better job of making sure what existing pipeline and facilities are there."
As the investigation moves forward, Hickenlooper believes local zoning laws will probably be examined as well.
"I expect we're going to have a very rich discussion around that now," he said.
Republican Sen. John Cooke is from Greeley and represents part of Weld County, which has the highest number of oil and gas wells in the state. For him, it's too soon to talk about limiting local developments.
"I don't want to come out and say, 'Yes we will deny developers the right to develop their property,' or if I want to sell my property to a developer, I don't know if we want to say, 'No you can't do that.' I think you have to take a lot of things into consideration before you come to that kind of a decision," said Cooke.
Cooke is also not ready to place blame on anyone and said he doesn't want people opposed to oil and gas development to use this incident to further a broader agenda.
"And I hope it doesn't come to that because we have two people that died unfortunately, so I hope they don't try to make their deaths a political issue," he said.
In a written statement, Anadarko Petroleum's CEO Al Walker said the safety of employees and people in the community is its number one priority. The company said it will fully cooperate with all ongoing investigations and will ensure that no stone is left unturned.
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.
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