Noonan: Oil and gas ‘sides’ need to move forward to secure public safety

Author: Paula Noonan - May 31, 2017 - Updated: May 30, 2017

Paula Noonan
Paula Noonan

Both “sides” in the arguments over oil and gas development say the other is “taking advantage” of the explosions in Firestone and Mead. This should not be a time for sides. This should be a time for serious analysis. It can also provide an opening that should, for the sake of everyone in the state, cut through sides to allow common sense to function.

Both accidents caused violent fire and explosions leading to death and serious injuries in non-industrial environments. The Mead accident occurred 1,000 feet from other buildings, according to reports. The Firestone explosion blew up a house as a pipe leaked gas that followed French drains into the Martinez’s basement.

Anadarko responded to the first explosion by saying, “out of an abundance of caution” it was shutting down pipes in areas similar to the Firestone explosion. Those words were not reassuring. They signify the tone-deaf ear of the industry to homeowner fears.

At the same time, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman is taking up the case from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission concerning the meaning of the word “balance” between public safety and oil and gas development in the COGCC’s mission statement. The COGCC wants clarity on what “balance” means. Gov. John Hickenlooper has asked Coffman to drop the case.

Hickenlooper declared that public safety is the top priority, in his comments on the Mead fire. That statement can now be followed with legislation that both sides can agree to, based upon investigatory findings.

Drawing an example from the recently adjourned legislative session, HB17-1256, a bill dealing with oil and gas facility distance from school property, was killed. It would have made a minor but important adjustment to how close to schools drilling can occur. Current statute says the drilling may occur at 1,000 feet from school buildings. The bill would have moved the point to 1,000 feet from school property lines.

Given the Firestone event, 1,000 feet from school property lines seems a reasonable first-step designation. The difficulty here is in knowing how far uncontrolled gas underground will seep before leakage is discovered. One might ask if there should be a margin of error barrier that should increase the distance. The industry should have supported the bill.

Another bill, HB17-1372, dealing with how oil and gas operators disclose pipe development plans, asked the industry to show where their pipes crisscross near and under residential communities. At the very least, this would allow current residents and future home buyers to know just where pipes are in close proximity to their homes.

Anadarko, the oil company that owns the Firestone pipes, has given homeowners in the explosion neighborhood methane detectors. HB 1372 would have allowed other homeowners near drilling activities to know whether they need methane detectors, too.

One obvious important argument for oil and gas development is that the nation needs the energy to keep moving. The economy depends on it. This fact makes it more important that the energy industry work with legislators and other governments to insure public safety, even at the extra cost.

Here’s why:

The public knows that energy drives their lives. But the public also knows that drilling causes danger, from devastating explosions to pollution to climate warming. Pollution and warming are simmering issues, but huge fires and explosions near our backyards scare people a lot. They don’t want to be anywhere near that.

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan

Paula Noonan owns Colorado Capitol Watch, the state’s premier legislature tracking platform.