The COGCC’s wall

January 11, 2018

COGCC, Colorado, oil and gas drilling


After two day-long, and often contentious, flowline rulemaking hearings this week, the Colorado Oil & Gas Commission (COGCC) continued the hearings until February 13. Or as the Denver Post put it they “hit a wall.”

The matter before the commissioners is what to do about the hundreds of miles of unmapped and unregulated flowlines known to be buried within 1,000 feet of occupied buildings. Flowlines are underground pipelines that move water, oil & natural gas directly from the well to storage tanks, and other well sites or processing facilities.

During last summer, COGCC staff put together a proposal that requires companies to cut off abandoned lines, test active lines to detect leaks, participate in an 811 system for locating lines at specific excavation sites, and provide full reports on all fires and explosions that happen about once a month. Current rules require accident reports only when non-worker residents are injured, and if company officials considered the damages to be significant.

Review the current COGCC draft proposal here: Flowline Rulemaking Scoping

The proposed new rules are included among several policy initiatives ordered by Governor John Hickenlooper after an uncapped flowline caused a home explosion in Firestone last April that killed the homeowner, his brother-in-law, and seriously injured his wife.

At Monday’s hearing COGCC Director Matt Lepore said the Firestone accident was unusual and might not have occurred if the well of origin and the flowline had been abandoned according to the procedural rules in place at the time it was shut-in

“Human error was a factor,” Lepore said. “I don’t think we can write rules that prevent human error. If someone had cut off the abandoned riser below grade, you eliminate the opportunity to connect something that shouldn’t be connected.”

Be that as it may, the rapid expansion of subdivisions and commercial developments in the North Metro Denver area along the Front Range has resulted in tremendous public pressure on state officials to update the rules for underground pipelines. COGCC staff members have acknowledged that they don’t know the locations or total miles of flowlines. Nor do they have data on the underground gathering lines that connect with larger interstate pipelines. Furthermore no agreements for regulatory cooperation have been made with other state and federal agencies regarding interstate pipelines. All of which means the thousands of miles of gathering lines and interstate pipelines remain out-of-sight-out-of-mind until something goes wrong – like “human error.”

This particular COGCC rulemaking process is focused on flowlines only. And it’s rough sledding at that.

Though on Monday, Lepore appeared to be on board with the new rules. “I believe that the proposed rules represent the most comprehensive and protective regulations of flowlines anywhere in the country,” he told commissioners. “It is this commission’s prime objective to ensure oil and gas operations occur in a manner that’s consistent with protection of public welfare, safety and the protection of environment and wildlife. This [set of proposed rules] is another measure of ensuring that objective.”

Yeah. Right. That’s why the COGCC is appealing the Martinez case in which the Colorado Court of Appeals overruled a lower court and confirmed that the protection of public health and the environment is “a condition that must be fulfilled” by the state before oil and gas drilling can be done. Maybe Lepore, like Trump, thinks if he repeats something enough times that makes it true.

Lepore’s comment above about the “Firestone accident” is probably more indicative of his true feelings which are more like:  Shit happens. Nothing you can do about it. Should the state continue adding to the oil & gas companies’ financial costs just because something bad might happen?

The oil & gas industry lobbying group Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) supports the new rules. President Dan Haley said: “The proposed regulations call for more flowline testing, more reporting, more monitoring and more mapping — all of which are beneficial for Coloradans who live near oil and gas operations. If approved, there will be more attention and scrutiny on these flow lines than ever before, creating an even safer industry. This added regulatory oversight and burden is something our industry must bear, because it’s the right thing to do and it is in the best interest of Coloradans across the state.”

Experience tells us that if COGA is on board then there must be something wrong. For one thing, the new rules don’t mention “more mapping.”

Monday’s hearing featured public comments from local government officials and citizens demanding mapping. The strongest push back came from members of a Front Range coalition including local government and emergency officials who believe the proposed rules don’t go far enough to protect public health and safety. They insist state regulators must map all underground lines and make them available to community planners, emergency workers, and construction companies. They want reports on all accidents, more leak inspections, surface setbacks and markers on pipelines, as well as local authority to remove abandoned pipelines.

State Sen. Matt Jones (D-Louisville), also a candidate for Boulder County Commissioner, led the call for mapping telling commissioners: “I think you’re woefully inadequate in that you’re not mapping all these lines and letting the people know where they are.” He said that requiring companies to provide detailed maps of all underground lines “is a minimum.” He contested the industry’s charge that pipeline maps could lead to illegal tampering saying, “Public safety way outweighs that … Please require mapping of pipelines and disclosure so people can understand what risk they have. They can choose to move, choose not to buy a house, or they can live with it — but at least they know.”

In addition Jones pointed out that Utah companies are required to report any accidents that lead to injured workers and non-workers to state regulators. “Companies operating in Colorado should have to report every accident. We should know what’s going on.”

Several county commissioners and community representatives spoke out in favor of mapping as a necessary tool for community planning and development.

Lepore said he’s unaware of mapping requirements in other states. Instead of mapping, Lepore and the COGCC staff think the 811-Call Before You Dig system is a better idea. Operated by the Utility Notification Center of Colorado, the 811 one-call center is used to find buried utility lines in a specific section, including water, cable, telephone, electric, and oil & gas lines. The center takes calls from homeowners, contractors and businesses when they plan to dig in a specific area. In response the center finds out which companies have infrastructure buried in the area and contacts them to mark the ground where their line is located.

In her public comment Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones said the state’s proposal to use 811 doesn’t go far enough. “For the county, land use planning is crucial and without information for flow lines, pipelines, we can’t plan for our communities or respond to emergencies,” Jones said. “811 alone isn’t sufficient. We can’t call 811 about our 25,000-acre land use portfolio.”

Tuesday’s hearing was reserved for industry response to the proposed new rules. Once again the mapping issue was up for discussion.

In fact the second day began with testimony from Jose Espino, director of operations at the Utility Notification Center of Colorado. Espino disputed the COGCC staff’s position that the state’s 811-Call Before You Dig program has reliable information about the location of pipelines. Espino said the 811 center “is not a repository of data” and it doesn’t provide the precise location of underground pipelines.

According to Espino, when an excavator or property owner calls to request a line locate, the call center notifies the utility or pipeline owner shown on their records. “Otherwise, we send one of the line locate services that have signed up as contractors.”

“811 is predicated on calling before you dig,” Espino said “Anyone can request a line locate service but we don’t provide mapping data. And we are prohibited from sharing any information we have other than verbally over the phone.”

But Noble Energy engineering manager Jeannette Jones reiterated the fear-mongering-talking-point that handing over pipeline maps to local government could lead to terrorists tampering with pipelines. Jones said if companies give COGCC regulators pipeline location details the state should limit public access to the data.

COGCC Commissioner Erin Overturf dismissed the industry’s penchant for secrecy. “Local governments are sophisticated … I also am not concerned with local governments committing acts of terrorism … What do you see as the risks of providing them that information?”

Jones replied that local officials could share pipeline locations with developers adding, “It just opens the door.”

Which begs the question: Should the state continue putting public health and safety at risk just because something bad might happen?

Of course there were other industry complaints about the new rules including too much paperwork, valve inspections could shut down field operations, and objections to the 30-day notice for new pipeline construction. PDC Energy requested that the rules not take effect until 2020, instead of the March 1, 2018, target date.

The commissioners had planned to vote on the proposed rules at the end of Tuesday’s hearing. Instead, citing time constraints, they decided to delay the flowline rulemaking until February 13. Commission chairman John Benton directed COGCC staff to seek more input from companies and communities in order to refine the draft proposal. The delay means the rules probably won’t go into effect on March 1. It’s possible some rules will go into effect on May 15, 2018, while others will be delayed until 2020, as requested by the industry.

By the end of the hearings, it was obvious to the commissioners that the 811 program is not the pipeline-info-r-us that it was cracked up to be. But that isn’t the wall they hit in this hearing process.

The mapping issue isn’t the wall either. They’ve already forgotten about mapping. It’s not mentioned in the draft proposal so it’s not going anywhere. Perhaps they’ve already decided to sluff that off on the lawmakers. No worries there. Pipeline mapping has an even slimmer chance of becoming reality in the Colorado legislature than with the COGCC.

The wall they smacked up against is the totality of the COGCC’s never-ending existential dilemma: How do we maintain the illusion of protecting public welfare, safety, and the environment and wildlife, while at the same time safeguarding the oil & gas industry’s bottom line?

If history is any judge, rest assured they’ll figure it out.

Sources:

DBJColorado hearings on new oil and gas pipeline rules draw fire

Daily SentinelState takes up safety of flowlines

Denver PostColorado oil and gas regulators face flak from communities as they refine pipeline rules

Daily SentinelPanel forced to delay flowline rule deliberations

Greeley TribuneCOGCC pushes rule revisions on flowlines to February

DBJNew rules for Colorado oil and gas pipelines to be postponed

Denver PostColorado oil-gas regulators delay decisions on rules for pipelines

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2 Comments on “The COGCC’s wall”

  1. Fred Albert Malo Jr. Says:

    The COGCC has never turned down a request to drill. It is a fraud.

  2. Robert Parker Says:

    If COGCC Director Matt Lepore’s daughter or son had been in the home that exploded he probably would see things differently.

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