Colorado explosion brings calls for safety but no quick fix

DENVER (AP) — Colorado regulators have ordered a snap review of oil and gas pipelines after a fatal house explosion near a well, but they haven’t said how they plan to fix a fundamental flaw in the system: They don’t know where all those pipelines are.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and lawmakers from both parties agree Colorado needs a comprehensive map of pipelines leading away from the state’s 54,000 wells after an April 17 explosion killed two people in the town of Firestone.

Investigators blamed gas seeping from a severed underground pipeline, called a flow line, designed to carry oil or gas from a well to a storage tank or other collection point.

The line was thought to be out of service and disconnected from the well, but it was still hooked up with a valve open. Investigators have said they don’t know why.

Despite public alarm after the explosion, state government appeared unlikely to start on a mapping project very soon.

Matt Lepore, the state’s top oil and gas regulator, said Thursday that before his agency takes that on, he wants his staff to get through the fast inspections the governor ordered this week.

He also wants a public discussion about whether his agency — the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission — is best suited to compile and keep the map, or whether it should be local governments or someone else.

“Local governments, for example, have construction drawings and sewer infrastructure drawings and I assume water infrastructure drawings,” Lepore said in an interview. “They already have lots of maps and information about things that are underground.”

Hickenlooper and lawmakers have said the Legislature is unlikely to take any action this year. The Legislature wraps up next week, and next year’s budget is already set.

“Without knowing exactly what the circumstances were and what had happened, it’s hard to get anything done in the last three days, to get the stakeholders together and find a solution,” said Republican state Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan.

Other lawmakers were wary of turning the Firestone tragedy into a political issue and mindful of the victims’ families.

“We don’t want to politicize the event,” said Democratic Sen. Matt Jones of Louisville.

“At the same time, we need to protect people who live near oil and gas wells, and I think the family would agree with that,” said Jones, who tried, without success, to get a bill passed this session that would have increased the minimum distance between wells and schools and homes.

Colorado cannot pass a new law in less than three days, and lawmakers had just five working days left on Thursday. They had more than 300 bills to settle before leaving the Capitol, including measures to fund public schools and repair crumbling highways.

Oil and gas safety has been one of the most hotly debated items in the Colorado Legislature in the past decade. Drilling disputes have divided Democrats and led to lawsuits and threats to bypass lawmakers and take safety enhancements to voters.

Colorado has a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, making bipartisan agreement a requirement for passing a bill. On a touchy subject like restricting one of the state’s largest and most influential industries, consensus can be elusive.

Some Democrats weren’t ruling out a hasty attempt to expand well inspections, despite the long odds of success.

“It’s incredibly important to the people of Colorado,” said House Democratic Leader KC Becker, who is not related to Jon Becker.

Lepore said he believes the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has the authority to tell energy companies to submit the data needed for a pipeline map and does not need the Legislature’s approval.

But he said the best way to accomplish that might be through the commission’s formal rule-making process, which has taken weeks or months in the past. Lepore said he did not know how long it might take in this case.

The commission already has an interactive online map that provides a wealth of information about wells, but Lepore said it does not have the same kind of data on flow lines.

Lepore, director of the commission since August 2012, said he does not recall any previous discussions about creating a flow line map, probably because the need did not seem as urgent when most drilling took place on thinly populated agricultural areas.

But growing communities now overlap with oil and gas fields in some parts of Colorado, and homes sometimes wind up startlingly close to wells, storage tanks and flow lines.

That crowding began when agricultural land was sold and subdivided, Lepore said.

“That would have been the time to start the conversation” about mapping flow lines, he said.

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Associated Press Writer James Anderson contributed to this report.

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