Colorado drilling commission pressed on fatal Front Range gas patch home explosion

Author: John Tomasic - April 27, 2017 - Updated: April 28, 2017

Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commissioner Matt Lepore, April 27, 2017. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)
Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Matt Lepore, left, April 27, 2017. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)

The fact that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission held a press conference Thursday to address the deadly house explosion that rocked Firestone last week was the main news to emerge from the meeting.

The April 17 explosion killed two men. There is no evidence linking the explosion to oil and gas operations.

But the house at 6312 Twilight Avenue in which the men died is an ashen rubble located in the heart of the northern Front Range gas patch, 20 miles northeast of downtown Boulder, just east of Interstate 25 — off a stretch of highway that serves as a sort of commuter-line for oil and gas traffic, a drillers’ corridor that runs between wild grass fields and new subdivisions between Denver and the Wyoming border. The route is dotted with so-called fracking “mega-sites,” or well pads the size of strip malls, where series of wells stand in rows beside soldier-like storage tanks, staring back at commuters as they pass.

As Commission Director Matt Lepore was at pains to relate Thursday, there was no new news to report from the ongoing investigation into the tragedy: no evidence to report that would link the explosion to the oil and gas well located 170 feet from the home; no evidence that other drilling may have disrupted that 24-year-old vertical well; no trace of loose methane in the atmosphere around what remains of the house or in the surrounding Oak Meadows community.

“We believe there is no immediate threat in the neighborhood,” he said. He might have added that he thought there was no immediate threat to gas-patch communities around the state. After all, COGCC press conferences in the last decade have routinely drawn reporters from statewide and local news outlets from across the state — and this press conference was more likely than most to draw that kind of attention.

COGCC spokesperson Todd Hartman set upon after the Commission's April 27, 2017, press conference. (John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)
COGCC spokesperson Todd Hartman set upon by reporters after the Commission’s April 27, 2017, press conference.
(John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)

The investigation into the “final origin and cause” of the explosion is being led by the Firestone Fire Protection District, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the Firestone Police Department, according to Summer Campos, spokesperson for the fire district. The COGCC is acting as “an assisting agency,” she said.

The hydraulic fracturing boom in Colorado has been particularly fraught for the fact that it has centered in the Wattenberg field north of Denver, that is, in suburban commuter country. Drillers have descended into neighborhoods. Wells sit near schools and retirement homes. Tensions run high. Questions about drilling and local-zoning control have dominated Colorado election and legislative battles. Court cases around drilling stack up every year.

“I want to emphasize that I will not speculate or offer opinions on events,” Lepore said. “I will provide facts at this time,” which he did.

The well at the center of the story is named Coors V6-14Ji. It is 7,912 feet deep. It is presently shut down — or “shut in,” as the industry puts it, meaning the well can still produce minerals but that the spigot is shut off. Over the years, Coors V6 has produced both oil and gas. It was drilled in 1993 and has had four owners. Anadarko, one of the most active drilling companies in Colorado, bought the well from Noble Energy in 2014. The well was last inspected by the COGCC on August 27, 2014, which is typical, Lepore said. There are seven active wells in the Oak Meadows community. They have all been “shut in and secured,” as are the other eleven wells in the area, whether they were producing or not.

Lepore said Anadarko responded after the explosion by shutting in its vertical wells. The company announced Wednesday that it was shutting down 3,000 vertical wells across northeast Colorado. Lepore said that a shut in of wells on that scale was a first in Colorado history. He said Anadarko was acting “in an abundance of caution” and that the COGCC was not recommending that course of action to other drilling companies active in the region.

Politics around oil and gas drilling has mainly focused on “setbacks.” The current setback from homes for new wells is 500 feet.

Lepore said that the house at 6312 Twilight Avenue was built in 2015, long after the nearby well had been drilled. The Oak Meadows subdivision started north of the well and grew south, he said, toward the well.

The COGCC rules apply to extraction companies drilling new wells, not to home builders, he said — and establishing setback rules for new building construction was far beyond his jurisdiction.

Might the Coors V6 well have been in the path of a newer horizontal well? reporters wanted to know. Was Coors V6 disturbed?

“There has never been a drilling collision in Colorado as far as I know,” Lepore said.

John Tomasic

John Tomasic

John Tomasic is a senior political reporter for The Colorado Statesman covering the Colorado Legislature.

One comment

  • Bob Arrington

    April 28, 2017 at 4:41 pm

    “There has never been a drilling collision in Colorado as far as I know,” Lepore said. This statement is an evasive answer. Lepore knows quite well that there has been MIGRATIONS between wells where abandoned wells have suddenly started spewing from new wells.
    On television there were people taking ground samples, most likely to find if there was NG present. But if the gas were coming up underneath the house, these might not show anything except maybe close to a foundation wall. The two men killed were experienced enough to be heavily ventilating the home before working on a water heater if they smelled gas. A water heater draws air from the floor area around it. Because of the vent stack sizing and elevation differential, it continually draws air up and out the roof vent. NG coming in the vicinity of the water would be drawn in and burned. If a pilot light were used, the burn would be continual and for electronic ignition only when turned on by hot water need/call. If the basement had a radon gas removal system, this would also vent NG. However, NG could accumulate in crawl spaces, insulation, dead end rafter spaces, stick walls, etc. Any commercial gas would have mercaptan (“skunk oil”) odorant in it and would be very apparent. Gas coming from a well would be relatively odorless.

    The men, one a Master Plumber, would be cognizant of gas odor and procedures. A neighbor also reported there have been “no gas odors”.

    Another water heater had malfunctioned, a new heater installed, and the sister had called her brother, the Master Plumber brother, and he left work to go over and help with the malfunctioning new heater. He and his brother-in-law, an experienced construction person, proceeded to work on the new heater that was malfunctioning. The whole home exploded on them and the sister/wife.

    The extent of house demolished and intensity of fire indicates permeation of gas. If the heater had been burning “extra” gas from outside NG leakage, it could have caused failure of the original heater by burn thru of the heater tube and even vent pipes. It could have been causing water boiling and “knocking” noises and releases of the over pressure valve. There could be pulsing burning and flaring pilot light (if one). And the new heater could have been perceived to be acting like the old one. But it is highly unlikely two experienced men would release enough “smelly” gas to cause such devastation. They could have turned thing off long enough for NG to build up to higher levels such that when they turned the heater back on (and likely with base cover off burner access), it back flashed and ignited basement NG and all other “trapped” NG.

    It needs to be considered that to detect the leakage, it might be necessary to actually have the well “on”, test/inspect the sewer lines, sample soil under basement slabs, and inspect flow lines, both used and abandoned. But this case, can not ignore the fact it appears no one “smelled gas” as is the case in almost all commercial caused gas explosions.

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