Everything changed at approximately 4:45 p.m. on April 17. That’s the moment when Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin were tragically killed when the Martinez Firestone, Colorado, home exploded and burned to the ground. Mark’s wife Erin was also badly injured by the blast and remains in University Hospital. This horrific incident has shaken the small town of Firestone to its core. But the tremors of what happened that day have spread far beyond this former coal mining town on the eastern plains. The entire state is now shaking out of both fear and anger.
No one can doubt that for the families and friends of the victims, nothing will ever be the same. Our hearts go out to them. I can only imagine their pain and frustration as they watched how quickly this story transformed from their personal tragedy into a heated debate over the oil and gas industry’s controversial practice of drilling and producing hydrocarbons right in the middle of our communities, often within our neighborhoods, sometimes literally in our backyards.
And so I apologize now for doing that very thing I suspect these mourning families and their friends have come to loathe. It is not out of disrespect but rather the opposite. I am writing this piece out of hope and fear — hope that because of what happened to the Martinez and Irwin families, no one else will ever again have to go through what they are going through, and fear because I know that really isn’t possible.
The science and research doesn’t lie. There is a formula. If you push explosive materials through man-made pipes in and under people’s homes, it is only a matter of time combined with a thousand random, uncontrollable factors before a tragedy like Firestone occurs. Sadly, the formula hasn’t changed since this latest deadly explosion. It is still only a matter of time and weather and human error until it happens to the next family. And that is why I say that everything changed on April 17, not only for the victims of the Firestone tragedy, but for all of us — provided we act to save ourselves.
This is the turning point. I believe when it comes to citizens and communities protecting themselves from the oil and gas industry, April 17, 2017 will be remembered as the beginning of the end of putting dangerous, life-threatening industrial operations into densely populated areas or allowing developers to put subdivisions on top of already producing oil fields. There’s no going back now. The dangers are no longer theoretical and up for debate, as if they ever really were.
There have been 832 serious pipeline incidents in the U.S. in the past 20 years. These have resulted in 310 deaths and 1,299 serious injuries resulting in overnight hospital stays, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Even the industry regulators in Colorado, who too often serve as the industry’s cheerleader, assign wells in neighborhoods a higher hazard rating than their counterparts in wide open spaces. Which is to say that anyone who tells you producing explosive hydrocarbons in the middle of a town or that moving these hazardous materials between and/or under homes via pipeline is safe, is ignorant or simply lying.
The industry knows better, the regulators know better, our elected leaders know better and now, all of us know better.
There are very specific things we can do to prevent future tragedies like Firestone in the communities where neighborhoods have yet to be extensively drilled or developers have yet to erect homes on top of flowlines or right next to wells and production platforms — communities like Longmont, Lafayette, Louisville, Boulder, Broomfield, Thornton, Denver and Fort Collins. And there are some things that can still be done to slow if not prevent future accidents, even in communities like Firestone, Frederick, Erie and Greeley where folks have already endured the oil and gas industry’s invasion into their neighborhoods or vice versa.
And the good news; none of these game-changing actions on the part of communities require gathering a quarter of a million signatures, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars or fighting the millions spent by oil and gas front groups like Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development (CRED) or its offspring Vital for Colorado. The game-changing things I’m talking about can be accomplished by local city councils in a matter of days with no basis for being sued by the state.
But first, let’s take a closer look at what we know about what happened in Firestone.
What we know
Shortly after the house exploded, Anadarko Petroleum dispatched personnel to the scene. Anadarko owns and operates seven older wells in the subdivision, including the Coors V6-14Ji well (Coors well), which is located a mere 178 feet from the charred remains of the Martinez home.
Next, the company responded by shutting down the Coors well along with the other wells in the subdivision and an additional 3,000 wells of similar age located throughout Northeast Colorado. The company made its decision to shutdown the wells of its own accord out of what it called an “abundance of caution.”
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) — the state entity charged with both promoting the oil and gas industry and regulating it — confirmed that it had not instructed Anadarko or any other company to shut down wells as a result of the Firestone incident.
The investigation into what caused the explosion was conducted by the Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District. The COGCC assisted in the investigation. On Tuesday, May 2, fire officials issued a press release summarizing their findings.
“Investigators have reached the conclusion that the origin and cause of the explosion and subsequent fire that destroyed the Martinez home and damaged the neighboring home resulting in the deaths of Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin and the severe injury to Erin Martinez was unrefined, non-odorized gas that entered the home through a French Drain and Sump Pit due to a cut, abandoned gas flowline attached to an oil and gas well in the vicinity that, while abandoned, had not been disconnected from the wellhead and capped.”
The records for the Coors well on the COGCC website show that there were originally two flowlines connecting the Coors well with a tank farm to the north. The tank farm was moved around 2002 in order to accommodate development in the area. It appears that only one of the abandoned flowlines was ever capped.
Flowlines are defined as the gas or liquids pipelines that connect the well to the production platform with storage tanks, or in the case of natural gas, to the nearest gathering line.
It is not unusual for flowlines to be abandoned. When wells are plugged or production facilities moved, as in the case of the Coors well, flowlines are generally left buried in place. Obviously, this can be problematic if not done properly.
There is a very specific process for dealing with the old abandoned flowlines. For safety purposes, the COGCC requires the old flowlines to be disconnected from the well, filled with unpressurized inert ingredients, capped on both ends and cut off to a depth of three feet below the surface.
The old flowline that is now being blamed for the Firestone tragedy was apparently still hooked to the Coors well and uncapped, allowing gas to escape and fill the Martinez basement. The Martinez home was nearly new, being constructed in 2015. The old flowline, if never disconnected from the well, is likely to have been leaking its deadly gas for many years. It was an invisible bomb just waiting for someone to build on top of it, and they did.
We know a few other things about the Coors well. Production records show the well had been shut in for about 15 months beginning in the last quarter of 2015. Shut in refers to a well that is still capable of producing oil and/or gas but that is not being produced by the operator, usually for market-driven reasons. In February 2017, Anandarko put the well back online. The COGCC requires a well that has been shut in to be pressure tested before coming back online. I’ve been unable to find any records at the COGCC indicating Anadarko performed this required pressure test. But it may have done so without the COGCC having any records to show for it.
There are many documents such as those concerning required pressure tests on flowlines as well as documentation related to the disposal of toxic oil and gas waste that are nearly impossible to access. Rather than keeping such records available for public inspection on its website or at its offices, the COGCC instead requires the oil and gas companies to keep the records themselves for three years just in case the COGCC ever wants to see them. It’s a clever scheme. The public, including the press, can’t make a public records request (CORA) to a corporation like Anadarko, and if a request is made to COGCC it can simply respond that it’s not the custodian of those records. With enough time and money, someone might be able to force the COGCC to call up such records from the company, at which point they could be accessed by the public. It’s a pretty good roadblock, but I suspect that’s exactly what it was designed to be. The COGCC tends to take its position as the primary promoter of the oil and gas industry in Colorado far more seriously than it does its role as industry regulator. But more on that in a bit.
What we don’t know yet
So, did Anadarko know it had an uncapped, abandoned flowline attached to the Coors well prior to the explosion? I can’t answer that, of course. That will presumably be part of the continuing COGCC investigation.
It is safe to say that both the Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District and Anadarko seemed to know what happened very quickly. On one of my trips to the blast site, a member of Firestone law enforcement told me that the fire department knew what had happened within an hour of the blast. He also told me there is a video from an area camera showing the large two-story house being blown straight up off of its foundation before coming back down and imploding under its own weight. The fire became visible 30 to 45 seconds later, he said.
There is also the fact that both the fire department and the COGCC assured area residents that they were not in danger very early on. Had any of the active wells or old abandoned wells in the area been suspected of leaking natural gas that could have migrated to the Martinez house, they could not have made that claim when they did. Leaking gas from wellbores has been known to migrate well over a mile. If a leaking wellbore had been suspected as the cause of the blast, the neighborhood would likely have been immediately evacuated and residents likely would not have been able to return for days.
The only way the authorities could have known so quickly the other homes in the neighborhood were not in danger is if they knew that turning off the wells had remedied the problem. When wells are turned off, it is only the flowlines that are impacted. Therefore, fire officials and the COGCC would have presumably known with certainty it was a flowline issue before they declared the area safe for nearby residents, something they did shortly after the explosion.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Anadarko didn’t know that its Coors well was venting gas out of an old, improperly abandoned flowline prior to the explosion. Since there was no apparent indication that the well’s current active flowline wasn’t working, it would have made reasonable sense for the company to initially assume its well was not the cause of the explosion.
But if that’s the case, why make the decision to shut down 3,000 other wells before you know the explosion and deaths are going to be attributed to your actions? After all, an “abundance of caution” is hardly cheap. Anadarko is a major player in the oil and gas industry and is as sophisticated as they come in that business. The minute Anadarko made the decision to shut down its 3,000 wells, it knew what would happen next. Within hours of the next day’s opening bell on Wall Street, the company had already lost a quarter of a billion dollars in value. The 3,000 wells it turned off were generating 13,000 barrels of oil per day. That means, based on current oil prices, they were losing somewhere in the neighborhood of $656,000 per day, not counting lost revenue from gas. And the bleeding has continued. Barron’s reports, “Shares of Anadarko Petroleum (APC) are tumbling this morning after releasing disappointing first-quarter earnings… but it’s the potential overhang from a recent accident that appears to be spurring the massive selloff.” So far the company’s shares are down a total of 9 percent, an incredible amount of money for a company valued at almost $29 billion.
This makes Anadarko’s actions immediately following the explosion seem all the more impressive. It’s not often a major, public company is willing to lose hundreds of millions of dollars almost overnight just to be abundantly cautious at a time when presumably it is still unaware that it has a future problem looming ahead in the form of an improperly abandoned flowline.
Actually I’m more skeptical than impressed. It seems to me, that’s a high price to pay for a public relations exercise, which is exactly what the well shutdown would have been had Anadarko’s well not been found to be the cause of the explosion.
But if the company knew before the blast — and I’m not saying it did — that there was an improperly abandoned, uncapped flowline still attached to its Coors well that likely caused the explosion, then quickly shutting down the 3,000 similar, vertically drilled wells would have made perfect sense, It looked very responsible at the time and created a modicum of positive spin on a terrible situation. And if Anadarko did know about the flowline at the time, it was obviously something the company knew it was going to have to do anyway as soon as word of the old flowline came out.
As a result of Anadarko’s decision to shut down its vertically drilled wells until they can be proven safe, other communities have asked all operators to do the same, including Boulder County’s request for a shutdown of all vertically drilled wells in the county. Don’t be fooled by the “vertically drilled” aspect of this Anadarko shutdown.
Horizontally drilled wells are far more productive and their flowlines are under much higher pressures. This means that in case of an accident near neighborhoods they are actually far more dangerous than their vertically drilled counterparts, as their blast radius and destructive power is much larger. The reason the vertical wells were chosen is because new wells are horizontal and old wells are vertical. Anadarko shut down its older wells because age is the most important, but not only, ingredient in the formula of what makes things explode.
Pipe is pipe. According to the industry’s own literature, a small percentage of wellbores will fail shortly after the well is drilled. Over the next 20 years, 60 percent of all wellbores will fail, and over time all wellbores will eventually fail. It’s not rocket science; it’s corrosion and human error. Wait long enough and all flowlines will eventually fail as a result of corrosion, weather events or human error. And make no mistake about it, just because a well is drilled horizontally will not keep its flowlines from eventually leaking or exploding. It’s why building houses near or even on top of any oil and gas pipelines of any size is an insane thing for any level of government to allow. The industry’s and COGCC’s current delineation between vertical verses horizontal as it pertains to Firestone is simply another attempt to protect the industry’s most profitable wells from criticism or additional regulation.
But why should I concern myself with such matters? I’m sure the COGCC, in conjunction with Anadarko itself, will be conducting a full and thorough investigation to get to the bottom of such things, and to figure out how such an egregious transgression of the rules and regulations could have slipped through the COGCC’s self-proclaimed “toughest in the country” regulatory oversight. And if that fails, Gov. Hickenlooper has called on the industry to self-inspect well sites across the state, which is of course what they are supposedly already doing.
So far the COGCC has not let its investigation into the Firestone incident slow it down. It approved another 500 wells to be drilled in Adams County at its May 1 regularly scheduled meeting. I wish it had used its time to tell us how it was going to determine whether we should be worried about all the other thousands of miles of active, and abandoned flowlines full of explosive materials in our neighborhoods.
But alas, there is a reason Attorney General Jeff Sessions can’t be in charge of the Trump/Russia investigation, and the same reasoning applies to this investigation as well.
Independent investigator must be appointed
This is much larger than what happened in Firestone. There are — according to data miner and anti-fracking activist Shane Davis — 60,000 miles worth of potentially explosive flowlines in Colorado, including many miles running under neighborhoods just like Firestone. That’s enough pipelines full of explosive materials to circle the Earth nearly 2.5 times. And that’s just the flowlines in Colorado that the COGCC is sort of in charge of regulating. (I’ll explain that comment shortly.)
What all this means is that there’s a lot at stake. This may well be the most important investigation the state has ever conducted into an oil and gas accident. It could potentially alter the course of drilling within communities in the future. And frankly, the track record of the COGCC absolutely disqualifies it from being in charge or even involved with such an important investigation.
The COGCC believes its first responsibility is the promotion of oil and gas extraction within the state. The first paragraph of its regulations state that “All rules and regulations of a general nature herein promulgated to prevent waste and to conserve oil and gas in the State of Colorado…”
The conflict of interest is obvious just in the way the Commission views its charge, but its actions over the past few years are even more telling.
You may recall the article BW published last year titled “Behind closed doors.” The story documented a recording made during a 2015 meeting of oil and gas industry representatives and state regulators. The gathering in question took place during a CRED presentation at the annual meeting of the Interstate Oil and Gas Commission (IOGCC).
CRED is an oil and gas industry front group funded by Anadarko Petroleum and Noble Energy, the two largest oil and gas producers in the state of Colorado. Most people are familiar with CRED as the organization that inundates the airways with millions of dollars worth of oft-misleading, pro-fracking advertisements.
During CRED’s 2015 IOGCC presentation by consultant Mark Truax of PAC/WEST Communications (who is also director of operations and coalitions for CRED) the room full of industry insiders and state regulators — including Matt Lepore, Governor John Hickenlooper’s appointed director of the COGCC — were told how CRED was manipulating the system to promote drilling and fracking within the city limits of communities in Colorado. It was a shocking confession caught on tape that includes candid descriptions of how this organization funded by Anadarko:
1) is taking over local city councils by funding its hand-selected candidates in order to prevent local governments from passing bans, moratoriums or other regulations that would inhibit drilling inside city limits;
2) is using the Denver Post to push its agenda;
3) how it created and now uses Vital for Colorado (another industry front group that claims to be independent of CRED) to intervene and change the outcomes of local municipal decisions;
4) is spending tens of millions of dollars to gather information on Colorado voters so it can manipulate election outcomes and keep setback and community rights initiatives off the ballot;
5) is working to amend the Colorado Constitution so citizens will no longer be able to put forward ballot measures to limit fracking in the future;
6) how it has created specific strategies to defeat grassroots environmental groups working to create stricter regulations on the industry in Colorado, and most importantly to this discussion;
7) how it is actually spending money to prop up the flailing image of the COGCC so people will think that it is doing a good job.
At no point during this CRED presentation did Colorado’s COGCC Director Lepore object to any of the shocking, antidemocratic tactics being described. To the contrary, he even participated in the presentation.
If there was ever any question as to whether the relationship between the COGCC and the oil and gas industry, in particular Anadarko and Noble, has become so inappropriately close as to disqualify the Commission from its charge as industry regulator, this recording answered that question. Yes, it has disqualified itself.
If the Commission were credible on this subject it would have been listening to its critics long ago. Shane Davis has sat right next to Lepore and presented irrefutable evidence as to the dangers of oil and gas extraction within communities. He has shown how leaking abandoned wells have caused homes in Colorado to explode and injure people. He warned over and over again at COGCC meetings that it was only a matter of time before people died as a result of leaking flowlines. He even moved from Firestone, from a house only a few blocks away from the Martinez house, because he understood the danger. But no one at COGCC dared slow the march of residential drilling.
And even if the COGCC could —which it can’t — be an unbiased investigator over an Anadarko incident like Firestone, it should still be replaced for the same reason that Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the investigation of his boss, namely to avoid the appearance of impropriety and thereby discredit the eventual findings.
What good is an investigation conducted by an entity that has lost the trust of millions of people? No matter what a COGCC investigation eventually concludes, those opposed to fracking and drilling in neighborhoods will never believe the outcome.
Imagine if (more likely when) the COGCC were to conclude that Firestone was a one-off, a terrible tragedy but an isolated event as opposed to any kind of systematic failure that should be viewed as a reason to stop allowing drilling in neighborhoods. What if the Commission concludes Firestone was the exception to the rule and that corrective actions such as better monitoring of pressure tests will ensure that such a tragedy will never happen again?
It doesn’t matter if such a conclusion is true or accurate. The fact that it is being rendered by the COGCC automatically discredits it with the very people a thorough investigation should be attempting to pacify.
This lack of trust is already being evidenced by a loud outcry from environmental groups and anti-fracking activists who are demanding an independent investigation from outside the COGCC be conducted. And it’s not just activists displaying a lack of trust. On one of my trips to the Firestone explosion site, a Firestone police officer told me that the reason the police were still standing watch over the site all day long was because the Frederick-Firestone fire inspectors didn’t want the COGCC investigators on site without being accompanied by fire department personnel. I commented on the seeming lack of trust of the COGCC and the cop agreed.
For that reason — in addition to the abundance of evidence that confirms the COGCC is far too involved in helping the industry do whatever is necessary to maintain its drilling and production activities in close proximity to housing, schools and hospitals — it is absolutely critical that the governor or state legislature appoint an independent outside investigator with no ties to the oil and gas industry. The memories of those killed in Firestone demand it.
But aside from the ongoing investigation, the Firestone tragedy has already illuminated a path forward for those who believe industrial oil and gas extraction has no place in neighborhoods and explosive pipelines don’t belong in the backyards where our children play.
The turning point: How to legally stop oil and gas drilling in neighborhoods
When asked why the Coors well was only 178 feet from the Martinez house when COGCC regulations call for a 500-foot setback, Lepore explained that while the Commission regulates how close a well can be to a house, after it’s drilled it is up to local communities, not the COGCC, to determine how close a house can be built to an existing well.
There are those who have argued whether this is an accurate reading of the COGCC’s authority, but Lepore’s interpretation is a potential boon to communities who want to protect their residents from the health risks associated with living in close proximity to oil and gas operations, as well as from deadly accidents like what occurred in Firestone. Lepore is basically acknowledging that if the COGCC doesn’t regulate it, local community governments can, and without fear of being sued by the state.
So why haven’t communities enacted common sense setbacks for developers when it comes to existing oil and gas wells, active and abandoned, and production platforms? The answer is simple: in every community along the Front Range, developers and the real estate industry are the most influential political force to be reckoned with, even more so than the oil and gas industry, but generally the two work hand in hand together.
So why would developers oppose an ordinance that matched the state’s 500-foot setback when it came to how close they could build to a well? The answer is easy: money.
Based on the most recent information, average building lot sizes in the Rocky Mountain region are getting smaller. They now average just 7,405 square feet. What this means to a developer is that they would lose 12 to 15 building lots for every 500-foot setback. That translates to millions of lost dollars. But it also translates to saved lives and less sprawl, and any city council can pass such a regulation at any time it wants if it is serious about getting people further from oil and gas operations.
But the real Achilles’ heel of the oil and gas industry that has been exposed by the Firestone tragedy pertains to flowlines and other gathering lines.
Applying Director Lapore’s interpretation of COGCC authority to flowlines like the one that had deadly consequences in Firestone creates an interesting scenario. The COGCC does not regulate setbacks on flowlines, therefore local communities can do so by the simple vote of the city council.
For Front Range communities that have yet to experience extensive drilling within city limits, creating a safe setback on flowlines based on explosion blast area research and additional safety buffers would make it very difficult for oil and gas companies to operate in neighborhoods. To drill within a community with substantive flowline setbacks, an operator would have to first find a drilling location 500 feet from homes that also had a several-hundred-foot-wide corridor along which it could run its flowlines. In most communities such potential sites would be few or nonexistent, and since the COGCC does not regulate flowline setbacks, it also has no authority to offer any exemptions or exceptions to such local setback ordinances.
With the absence of an appropriate avenue to run flowlines from a well, operators would be forced to use trucks as the only other option for moving their products from a well drilled in town. But local governments already are recognized as having authority over truck traffic within a community and current regulations or those that could be added later would make trucks likely not an option within neighborhoods.
Can flowline setbacks really be done at the local level? The answer is absolutely, and it’s already been done in three jurisdictions and has stood the test of time, creating solid legal precedent for such local ordinances.
The first local government in Colorado to pass gathering line setbacks was La Plata County sometime in the early 2000s. Next came the city of Durango in 2007, and this year Boulder County added setbacks as part of its new oil and gas regulations.
Flowline setback proponent Josh Joswick, a three-term La Plata County commissioner (now private citizen) and organizer for Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project, has been trying to convince local governments to get on board with setbacks for years. He has given numerous presentations to local governments and concerned citizens and has another presentation coming up in Longmont on Saturday, May 6. He’ll be speaking along with Dan Leftwich, Tony Ingraffea and Lisa McKenzie.
New setback ordinances created by local city councils and county commissioners can’t help the people whose neighborhoods are already filled with explosive flowlines. Their relief will have to come from the COGCC. Hopefully, after what has transpired, the Commission will change its focus from maximizing oil and gas production to public safety. Normally I’d be pretty pessimistic about that, but thanks to a recent court decision it’s far more likely today than it was a few months ago.
In March the youth organization Earth Guardians won an important appeal in their case against the COGCC. Much of the media coverage surrounding the court’s decision has focused on the court’s statement that the COGCC had erred when it refused to consider a petition presented by the youth plaintiffs in 2014. The petition requested that the COGCC suspend the issuance of fracking permits until such practice can be done without adverse impacts to the environment and human health.
But less has been written about another very significant finding of the three-judge panel, one that could revolutionize the regulation of oil and gas extraction in the state.
The panel of three judges, with one dissent, found that the COGCC had erred in its interpretation of the Oil and Gas Conservation Act that gives the Commission its power to regulate the industry. The COGCC has always claimed that its priority is to maximize oil and gas production while doing its best to balance that priority with the protection of human health, safety and the environment.
The appeals court ruled that the correct interpretation of the Act is that it “Mandates that the development of oil and gas in Colorado be regulated subject to the protection of public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”
This is no small difference. It basically says that when public health, safety and the environment are at odds with oil and gas extraction, oil and gas is supposed to lose. That is exactly the opposite of how the COGCC and the state of Colorado have been regulating the industry.
So there it is… the turning point. By using local land use regulations to force development to match the COGCC’s setbacks, by creating local setbacks on all oil and gas gathering lines, including flowlines, and by challenging the industry in court based upon the decision in the Earth Guadians case that makes oil and gas production subordinate to human health, safety and the environment, communities can now protect themselves from the oil and gas industry and its state government promoters.
All it takes is civic engagement. It requires no signature gathering or fundraising, just a few thousand concerned citizens showing up at a city council meeting and demanding these simple common sense ordinances. If you sense hesitation by certain city council members, check out who paid for their last campaign and you’ll know why. You can expect major pushback from developers, real estate interests and the oil and gas industry. But for the most part, city council members along the Front Range want to do what’s right for their citizens. Help them know what to do.
This is the time to stand up and be counted, to send a message to our elected leaders. Here’s one easy way to get involved today. In response to the Firestone tragedy, Shane Davis has placed a petition on MoveOn.org that calls for the immediate shutdown of all oil and gas wells located throughout the state. It also asked the governor to require a full Mechanical Integrity Test (MIT) on all active and abandoned wells.
MIT’s are supposed to be conducted on every well in the state every five years, but oil companies often ask for a deferment due to the cost of the test, and of course the COGCC most often approves their request.
Check out the petition; it calls for many other important steps to be taken as well. And don’t forget to catch Josh Joswick and the others in Longmont on Saturday. It is sure to be an informative gathering.