May 26, 2017 Updated: May 26, 2017 at 9:45 am
A 30-inch natural gas pipeline exploded in the Crestmoor neighborhood of San Bruno, Calif., on September 9, 2010.
The explosion killed eight people and destroyed or damaged more than 38 homes. The pipeline, built in 1954, was found to be defective because of poor construction and faulty welds.
A single-family home exploded in Firestone on April 17, after natural gas leaked into the basement from a nearby gas well flow line that had not been shut off and properly capped. The explosion killed two and severely injured another. Fault has not been fully assessed, but it appears the gas company and subdivision developer may be jointly responsible.
At play are two issues. The first is construction safety standards for new wells and pipelines. All new wells and pipelines must meet stringent standards for safety, during drilling and long-term during use. Such regulations must be strictly enforced and policed to ensure compliance.
The Firestone explosion highlights the second issue: dangers of development near old wells that are abandoned, dormant or in use.
As was the case in San Bruno, construction standards in the past can be markedly different from those of today. This makes inspection of older wells imperative if we are to avoid another Firestone tragedy. To that end, Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered companies to inspect all of their wells for compliance. The industry is responding to this order, as it should.
But this does not address future risks of development in established oil and gas fields that are webbed with networks of underground piping.
In response to the Firestone disaster, the Legislature considered a bill to require mapping of all underground pipes. Most agree it is a necessary move.
At issue is whether infrastructure maps should be open to the public.
National security regulations already limit public access to certain types of industrial facility information.
This is to deny terrorists information they might find useful in planning attacks. These security requirements caused a lot of controversy when the Department of Homeland Security implemented them, but history has shown that public access to some records creates valid national security concerns.
This would be true of records disclosing locations of underground natural gas and oil conduits.
Rather than create another public safety concern, the law should simply ensure that developments in pre-existing oil and gas fields are protected from mistakes like those which caused the Firestone explosion – which was a rare event.
This can be done in the permitting process for development. State government should simply require thorough surveys for oil and gas infrastructure before development begins. A plat of the proposed development should be submitted to state regulatory authorities that will have access to the confidential maps and records of oil and gas development.
If the development is in an area in which oil and gas wells were drilled, the developer must obtain certified location maps of underground infrastructure before breaking ground.
The developer must also make contact with the well owners to obtain certificates stating that the development will not damage underground infrastructure.
It is a legal requirement that any excavation must first get a utility location certificate and surface markings of utilities. This must be expanded to include a requirement that the owners or operators of existing wells both locate the pipes and ensure, with state inspection and certification, that all dormant or abandoned pipes have been properly shut off, severed and sealed.
In addition, legislators should enact a law to require all excavators immediately stop work if they sever any type of underground pipeline. The law would require written certification, ensuring the pipe has been properly sealed off and is safe before excavation resumes.
This plan deals with the risks of development of old oil and gas fields without creating a public safety concern.
This column was originally published in the Colorado Springs Gazette