In wake of fatal house explosion, Gov. John Hickenlooper orders review of all oil, gas operations
May 11, 2017
Here are some common terms that are helpful to understanding the April 17 house explosion in Firestone that killed two:
» Abandon — The proper plugging and abandoning of a well in compliance with all applicable regulations, and the cleaning up of the wellsite to the satisfaction of any governmental body having jurisdiction with respect thereto and to the reasonable satisfaction of the operator. It can also mean to cease efforts to find or produce from a well or field or to plug a well completion and salvage material and equipment.
» Shut in well — A well which is capable of producing but is not presently producing. Reasons for a well being shut in may be lack of equipment, market or other.
» Flowline — A surface pipeline carrying oil, gas or water that connects the wellhead to a manifold or to production facilities, such as heater-treaters and separators.
» Riser — The section of pipework that joins a seabed wellhead to the Christmas tree (wellhead equipment).
» French drain — A trench filled with gravel or rock or containing a perforated pipe that redirects surface water and groundwater away from an area.
Source: COGCC, Schlumberger and Wikipedia
What officials are saying about new rule that requires flowline inspections in wake of Firestone fatal house fire
Below is a group of what officials are saying in the wake of learning that a fatal house explosion in Firestone last month was caused by an improperly capped, abandoned flow line. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation commission has since ordered all oil and gas operators in the state to inspect their flowlines and verify either abandoning them or their integrity.
» “Our families’ safety and security must be our highest priority — not corporate polluters’ profits. Immediate action must be taken, and we support Governor Hickenlooper’s directive to revisit the integrity of all oil and gas lines within 1000 feet of occupied buildings. Public safety must be our number one concern, and we will continue to fight for the well-being of Colorado communities.” — Jim Alexee, director of the Colorado Sierra Club
» “Our thoughts remain with the Martinez and Irwin families, and we support the ongoing investigation by the Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District the Firestone Police and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. We know an old, abandoned flowline adjacent to the foundation of the Martinez household was cut, under yet unknown circumstances, and that an unusual set of events led to unrefined gases leaching into the property. On behalf of Colorado’s oil and gas industry, the safety of our families, friends, and communities is our highest priority and will remain so as we work to prevent tragedies like this from happening again. COGA supports the state’s call to inspect flowlines and ensure the safety of all Coloradans. We are committed to partnering with the COGCC, our operators, home builders, and Colorado communities to get it right. In the weeks and months that follow, we will endeavor to enhance flowline and pipeline procedures and remain committed to improving Colorado oil and gas production.” — Dan Haley, Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
» “The Firestone tragedy is the most recent — and heart-breaking — wake-up call that oil and gas exploration is a dangerous, heavy industrial activity that must be kept away from homes and schools. For years, communities across the state have raised concerns about the perils of siting homes and oil and gas facilities near each other, but these cries for change have fallen upon deaf ears. We have been left with empty promises from the oil and gas industry and tragedies such as this.
“Our elected officials must act with great urgency to strengthen the rules and laws governing oil and gas drilling. This means taking any action necessary to put the burden of proof for showing that drilling is safe onto the industry, not onto concerned community members.
“Moving forward, the COGCC must take decisive action and not allow any oil and gas activity unless it is proven to be safe to human health and our air and water. The fact that the commission is even considering appealing a court decision applying this standard is shocking.”
— Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado
» “Avoidable. What occurred in Firestone, while devastating, was predictable because Colorado sadly does not have adequate protections against dangerous oil and gas developments in our neighborhoods. The days where oil and gas profits are valued more than Coloradans’ safety, property, and quality of life needs to end. I call upon the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to take immediate steps to protect the public and implement new standards to prevent disasters like this from happening in the future. We cannot continue to delay local control, stricter safety standards, and greater setbacks.” — Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo.
FREDERICK — Oil and gas operators statewide will have two months to inspect, document and verify that all flowlines from oil and gas wells within 1,000 feet of an occupied building — whether the wells are abandoned or producing — are sealed and safe.
That mandate comes in the wake of fire investigators' determination that such a line led to an explosion of a Firestone home last month.
Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District investigators on Tuesday announced that the explosion on April 17 that killed two men and injured a woman and a child was the result of an abandoned and cut, yet still-connected gas return line from a well that was 178 feet away from the home.
"We can say at this point, the following: The origin of the explosion and subsequent fire … was unrefined, non-odorized gas that entered the home due to a cut and abandoned line attached to an oil and gas well" in the vicinity, said Ted Poszywak, fire chief of the Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District, in a news conference. "That gas came from a severed and uncapped abandoned line that was not disconnected and capped at the wellhead."
“As far as the greater picture here … I think I would say to you that the flowline was cut relatively closely to this home. I think the proximity of the flowline, cut and uncapped in proximity to a home matters more in this case than the fact that a home was constructed 200 feet within a well.
— Matt Lepore, COGCC executive director
The revelation was followed immediately by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission imposing the new flowline inspection rule on all operators in the state — a move punctuated by Gov. John Hickenlooper.
The explosion killed Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law Joey Irwin and severely injured Erin Martinez. The two men were said to be changing out a water heater at the time of the explosion.
Poszywak said, "There is absolutely no evidence to suggest the death of Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin was the result of any criminal or improper activity on their part."
He said even a plumbing expert would not have been able to smell the unrefined gas that was accumulating in the basement.
Poszywak said investigators determined the gas was isolated to this home and one next to it, and there was no other leakage from the well, which was shut off the day of the explosion. He said surrounding residents should not be concerned.
He said the well in question was intact and active flowlines going to a different storage tank had no leaks. The question was two abandoned flowlines that led to a different storage tank. One was capped properly; the other wasn't.
The home was built in 2015 by Century Homes and was located within the town of Firestone's acceptable limits from 150 feet of an existing oil and gas well.
In a news conference in Denver late Tuesday, COGCC Executive Director Matt Lepore said the distance to the home in this case shouldn't be the concern.
"As far as the greater picture here … I think I would say to you that the flowline was cut relatively closely to this home," Lepore said. "I think the proximity of the flowline, cut and uncapped in proximity to a home matters more in this case than the fact that a home was constructed 200 feet within a well."
Though the well is owned by Anadarko, it had changed hands a few times over the years prior to Anadarko's ownership and a subdivision being built around it.
Gerrity Oil and Gas drilled the well in 1993; four years later, it was acquired by Patina Oil and Gas, and in 2001, the company drilled the well into a different formation. Noble Energy acquired the well in 2005 and then swapped it with Anadarko in a massive asset swap in 2014, which moved Noble into the north half of Weld County and Anadarko into the lower half.
The well was last inspected by a COGCC inspector in August 2014.
It is unknown when the flowlines were abandoned, so finding a responsible party is proving a bit more laborious. Investigators think it likely was between 1999 and 2002, before increased regulations at the state level.
The state's rules today on abandoning wells require risers — lines protruding from the ground — to be capped at least 3 feet below the surface or where it meets the flowline, Lepore said.
"It has to be sealed, drained and cut off," Lepore told reporters. Operators also must reveal their planned route for flowlines on new wells.
The well, officials have earlier said, chiefly produced natural gas. The well had been shut in for the entirety of 2016, and it was not actively producing. Anadarko brought that well back online Jan. 28 — a move that is not unusual for any operator, Lepore said. Investigators believe the 1-inch line funneled gas into the basement of the home through the sump and some French drains.
In the wake of the explosion, Anadarko voluntarily shut in 3,000 wells in the entire basin, promising to inspect and repair any offending equipment. Officials on Tuesday submitted a press release expressing sorrow for the incident, and cooperation.
"We will continue to take all necessary and appropriate steps in that regard, and will continue to cooperate fully with all ongoing investigations to ensure we fully understand the basis for the fire district's conclusions and that no stone is left unturned prior to any final determinations," said CEO Al Walker in a new release.
Not all oil and gas operators followed suit, but Great Western shut in 61 wells, and another company, which Lepore wouldn't name Tuesday, was looking into 250 wells.
The notice to operators, issued Tuesday by the COGCC, should reveal every flowline within 1,000 feet of an occupied building. They will have until the end of May to locate and re-inspect flowlines, providing a complete inventory to the state. According to the order, "any existing flowline or pipeline riser not in use must be clearly marked using fluorescent paint, have all operating valves removed and be capped until it can be cut off below grade and sealed."
By June 30, operators must ensure and document that all flowlines from their operations within 1,000 feet of occupied buildings have integrity and sufficiently pass pressure testing. The rule states operators will be required to complete abandonment of any inactive flowlines, regardless of where they are or when they were taken out of service.
Reporters asked Lepore what he would say to residents today who are worried about the potential for danger at their homes.
"I would say that in our experience, what has taken place here is highly unusual and required a confluence of a number of different events to come to pass," Lepore answered. "It's horrible and horrifying, but there are a lot of wells that have been drilled and operated for a very long time in this state, and this is an unprecedented sort of event.
"We will take the steps we outline here to see to absolutely minimize any possibility of this happening, and operators will be hyper-diligent and hyper-vigilant about this situation going forward."