New flowline rules full of holes

February 14, 2018

Colorado, oil & gas industry

Roberto Leiba with the oilfield company Naill Services adjusts a well outside Windsor to attach a test tree. The well’s owner, Extraction Oil & Gas, hired the company to help inspect their underground flowlines near buildings. Those pipes transfer oil, gas and water to a storage tank or separator. [Photo credit: Grace Hood/CPR News]

On Tuesday, the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) approved 23 pages of new rules governing flowlines. Flowlines are underground pipelines that move water, oil & natural gas directly from the well to storage tanks, and other well sites or processing facilities. Until now flowlines had been exempt from regulations. Colorado has nearly 129,000 flowlines within about 1,000 feet (300 meters) of occupied buildings, according to energy company reports submitted to the state last year. See Mapping Colorado’s Invisible Pipeline Network.

Flowline Rulemaking: Staff’s Final Draft of Proposed Rules

“These are the most comprehensive rules addressing flowlines in the country,” said Howard Boigon, COGCC member, which approved the rules on a unanimous vote.

Few states, if any, have attempted to regulate flowlines therefore it could also be said these are the only flowline rules in the country. Either statement is true but it’s not a contest.

The commission also launched a stakeholder group to consider new technologies for monitoring pipelines, with ongoing quarterly progress reports, and a final report next year. Naturally this conjures up the Hickenlooper-Polis traveling circus task force of 2014-15, in which the oil & gas industry held a series of performances across the Colorado (referred to as “meetings” so they were paid for by taxpayers) demonstrating their awesome super powers.

Highlights of the new rules

Operators will be required to file a new “Form 44,” with specific information about wells including pipeline location. Operators will be required to demonstrate flowline integrity, including updated standards for integrity-testing lines, more testing options that align with newer technology, and the elimination of pressure-testing exemptions for low pressure lines. All of which must be verified by a third-party inspector. Presumably the inspector would be hired by the operator, not the state.

Operators must join the Utility Notification Center of Colorado (UNCC) and participate in the “811-Call Before You Dig” system that locates all known underground lines (including oil and gas, cable, telephone and fiber) before a homeowner or contractor digs underground. However the onus is on the operators and often operators are unaware of the location of flowlines, particularly if they took over leases from a previous company in the past 5 years, which is the case with most of the current operators in the state.

Operators must report any Grade 1 Gas Leak from a flowline to the Director verbally or in writing (Form 44) no more than 6 hours after discovery. A Grade 1 Gas Leak is a potential hazard requiring immediate attention.

But isn’t any gas leak a potential hazard requiring immediate attention?

At the hearing, Boulder County’s chief planner Kim Sanchez represented a coalition including Lafayette, Longmont, and Boulder County. Afterward she told the Denver Business Journal she “was pleased that local governments will be notified about ‘Grade One’ gas leaks in their jurisdiction.”

Just one problem. Nowhere in 1104.k. Gas Leak Reporting on Page 16 of the final draft of the flowline rulemaking does it make any mention of notifying local governments — only the Director. In 2013, during the Parachute Creek spill, local governments weren’t notified until after an article appeared in the Denver Post on March 16, which was 8 days after the spill was reported to the COGCC Director. And it’s not like Director Lepore volunteered the information to Bruce Finley at the Denver Post back then. Finley tracked down a rumor about a massive leak in western Colorado. He straight up asked Lepore if it was true. There’s no guarantee local governments will be notified in a timely manner, or if they are even notified at all.

Abandoned flowlines

In April 2017, a home explosion in Firestone that killed the homeowner, his brother-in-law, and seriously injured his wife was blamed on an abandoned, uncapped flowline. The flowline rulemaking process represents the state’s response to the tragedy.

In a statement, Gov. John Hickenlooper addressed the new flowline regs and specifically abandoned lines.

“[F]low lines not in use — but not yet abandoned — are locked and marked. All such lines must continue to undergo integrity testing under the same standards as active lines until abandonment. Any risers associated with abandoned flow lines must be cut below grade. This rule change makes permanent the post-Firestone order to eliminate above-ground risers connected to abandoned flow lines.”

Hickenlooper’s statement added: “Requirements for more detailed tracking, location data and record-keeping for flow lines that carry fluids away from a specific oil and gas location, such as lines that may travel from a well to a storage tank not co-located on the same well pad, or to a gathering line. The rule permits COGCC to share resulting, more specific geospatial information with local governments through a confidentiality agreement.”

However, as pointed out in the Denver Business Journal, “the regulations still give energy companies some control over location information for the new pipelines put into operation after May 1.”

… As approved, companies must give the COGCC location information about pipelines, including general location drawings for existing lines (due by October 31, 2019) and highly detailed geodatabase information for new lines put into place after May 1, 2018.

The public can access the general location drawings, but the highly detailed geodatabase is considered highly confidential — and not available to the general public, under the rules.

That confidential information would be available to local governments that ask for it, are willing to sign a confidentiality agreement and will use the information for emergency and planning purposes.

The difference between the two sets of information is several feet.

The general, publicly available layout information is accurate with “tens of feet,” while the confidential geodatabase is accurate to within one meter, Lepore told the Denver Business Journal earlier Tuesday.

And under the regulations, companies also must grant the COGCC their permission to share the detailed geodatabase information with local governments.

In final deliberations late Tuesday, the commissioners worried about the provision.

Lepore told the commissioners the section aimed to deal with potential open records requests for the detailed geodatabase information under the Colorado Open Records Act, or CORA.

CORA allows exceptions to open records, including documents focused on “critical infrastructure.” The COGCC has deemed the geodatabase information to be “critical infrastructure” and thus exempt from the state’s open records law, Lepore said.

The regulations require local governments to sign a confidentiality agreement, basically saying they will honor the state’s determination that the records are not open to the public, he said.

If local governments decide to release the information anyway, “that would be a breach of contract … [but] what we would do about it, I can’t begin to say,” Lepore said.

On the flip side, Lepore said, “if local governments don’t agree to the conditions, then operators will be very hesitant to give any information to local governments.”

After the vote, Lepore told the DBJ he’d be “disappointed” if companies exercised their right to stop the COGCC from sharing the geodatabase information with local governments, and didn’t think companies would take that path.

“I think the companies know there’s an obligation to share that information,” he said.

Representatives of local governments chose the “glass half full” approach.

“We think the [geodatabase] data provided by the operators doesn’t need to be confidential, but getting some data, including on existing pipelines — the ones in place before May 1 — is better than getting none,” Kim Sanchez, Boulder County’s chief planner, told the DBJ, speaking on behalf of the county and the cities of Lafayette and Longmont, which banded together for the rule-making process.

Sanchez said the county would be willing to sign the confidentiality agreement with the state in order to get the information …

Paul Zogg, an attorney with Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, summed it up best during his testimony at the hearing before the vote. Zogg challenged the confidentiality agreement saying that cities including Greeley, Longmont and Broomfield need to know the location of pipelines because oil and gas operations are expanding near residents.

“We need to help people, like those in Firestone, to protect themselves from risks that are in their neighborhood,” Zogg said. “We are seeing more development in urban areas, and we are seeing more concentrated development — large well pads with multiple wells on them. This reflects an overall increased risk to safety … broad interpretations of confidentiality are inappropriate. We know there are leaks. They are not visible … If you just abandon them, you may be leaving gas and liquid contaminants in the ground that create risks going into the future.”

After the vote, industry representatives made these statements to the DBJ:

“Without question these tough, new regulations will further enhance the safety and integrity of our pipeline infrastructure,” said Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA), the industry’s biggest trade association in the state.

“Safety is our industry’s top value and that includes the safety of our workforce and the communities where we work and live,” Haley said.

Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, the local chapter of the American Petroleum Institute, said the industry is “committed to continuous improvement in performance and safety, with an ultimate goal of zero incidents.”

Talk is cheap. In 2017, Colorado oil & gas companies reported 619 spills, a 17 percent increase over 2016 data. Companies spilled more than 93,000 gallons of oil into soil, groundwater and streams. They also spilled more than 506,000 gallons of “produced water” (drilling and fracking wastewater full of toxic chemicals). Most of the spills involved pipeline mishaps.

When it comes to performance, integrity and safety, the oil & gas industry has a mountain to climb.

After the Firestone tragedy in April 2017, Gov. Hickenlooper ordered GPS location data for all flowlines within 1,000 feet of buildings. Inside Energy mapped that data. View interactive map and data at Mapping Colorado’s Invisible Pipeline Network. [Credit: Jordan Wirfs-Brock/Inside Energy]

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