Brennan Linsley, Associated Press file.
Workers dismantle the charred remains of a house destroyed by an explosion triggered by natural gas in Firestone earlier this year. The April 17 blast killed two people. Investigators blamed the explosion on gas leaking from a severed pipeline that was thought to have been abandoned but was still connected to a well.
Gov. John Hickenlooper’s recent announcement of new safety rules for oil and gas pipelines is a welcome improvement. These new rules are, however, treating the symptoms rather than the causes of the problem. Oil and gas drilling is a dangerous industrial activity. Spills, fires and explosions happen regardless of the rules.
Since 2013 there have been more than 50 reported fires at or near well sites in Colorado. The Firestone home explosion that killed two men in April and the Mead tank explosion that killed a man in May are just two of the most recent.
Certainly Colorado should have strong statewide protections in place and the rules should be enforced. Some of those protections have improved over the last several years, but more work remains in many areas. Even if Colorado had the best precautions possible, they would still be inadequate to protect against unfortunate incidents that inevitably occur.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission can take one step right now to make drilling safer, and it would not even require any new rules or laws. It would require nothing other than the COGCC using its existing authority and applying it the way it was meant to be used. The commission can stop granting permits when drilling would be inconsistent with public safety.
Long ago, the legislature gave the COGCC the authority to grant or deny drilling permits and also gave it a guiding philosophy. The commission is supposed to allow drilling only “in a manner consistent with public health, safety, and welfare, including protection of the environment and wildlife resources.”
That means the commission shouldn’t allow drilling under dangerous circumstances and hope for the best. It means if drilling cannot be done in a manner consistent with public safety, it should not happen.
Let’s put aside the legitimate concerns about whether drilling is ever safe under any circumstances and focus on the obvious: oil and gas operations in the middle of residential neighborhoods and right next to schools, hospitals, and apartment buildings are inherently unsafe. Many have always known this; the recent tragedies have brought it into a clearer focus for others.
Yet operators still want dozens of wells in the middle of Broomfield and a drilling site just 500 feet from the soccer fields of an elementary school in Greeley. This is simply too close. It is not consistent with public safety.
The fact that some drilling operations are so close to where families live and where kids go to school is the root of much of the conflict we see today. So far, the industry’s response to the conflict has been to pour millions of dollars into political races and to sue local governments whenever they attempt to address the concerns of their residents.
Perhaps a different approach might be more fruitful. The COGCC can reduce the strife simply by properly accounting for public safety and checking the industry’s desire to drill everywhere.
When asked about oil and gas drilling after the Firestone tragedy, the governor rightfully said that “safety is our No. 1 priority.” I agree. Let’s build upon his constructive pipeline safety improvements to truly make safety paramount. Keep it out of neighborhoods and away from schools. Don’t help the industry when it wants to sue local governments for trying to move drilling a little farther away than the state rules contemplate. Acknowledge that some places are just not appropriate for dangerous industrial operations of any kind. None of this revolutionary; it is simply applying the law as it is written now.
State Rep. Mike Foote’s House District 12 stretches from Louisville and Lafayette to eastern Longmont. He lives in Lafayette.
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