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To Improve Safety, Greeley Hired Its Own Oil And Gas Inspector

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Jackie Fortier
/
KUNC
Greg Becker inspects a drill head at the largest oil and gas production site in Greeley, Colo.

How safe are oil and gas wells? That question is being asked by residents up and down the Front Range after a couple of high-profile incidents in Weld County.

In May, an oil and gas worker was killed and two more were injured at an explosion in Mead, a town 10 miles west of Longmont. In April, two people died and another was severely wounded at a home explosion in Firestone. That blast was caused by an abandoned flow line that was still connected to a well. Gases seeped into the home because the line was severed.

Since 2014, Greg Becker has worked to prevent disasters like those from happening in the city of Greeley, which has long been in the heart of the oil and gas industry. City officials decided they didn’t want to rely solely on the state to inspect the hundreds of wells as the population grew to over 100,000 people and interests continued to overlap.

As a Greeley firefighter, Becker was familiar with what inspections entail. He grew up in farm -- and oil -- country east of the city, near Kersey.

“I’ve been taking degree classes on oil and gas production to be better versed on the industry, not only for my safety but then to do a better job with these inspections,” he said as he drove his red SUV to the largest oil and gas production site in Greeley. “I love the job... it was created basically because of some concerns for the safety of the citizens, especially with the close proximity of these new [oil and gas] sites to existing homes and with new homes being built around previously existing sites.”

In other words, Becker is another set of trained eyes. While his inspection process isn’t as thorough, and doesn’t take the place of the state’s, he is able to sound the alarm if he sees any potentially catastrophic issues. If he does, he tips off the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that regulates the industry. In 2015 Becker found 323 fire code violations at wells in Greeley, mainly improperly controlled waste. Last year, violations dropped to 263.

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Credit Jackie Fortier / KUNC
This horizontal well head is the newest technology in the evolving industry.

“It’s clear that the [state] inspections that are currently happening are not enough,” said Colorado Sierra Club spokeswoman Hillary Larson. “If they were enough, then we wouldn’t be seeing these kinds of accidents like we saw in Firestone.”

She thinks that the Greeley Fire Code inspections add an element of safety, but taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for them.

“This is happening in Greeley, but it’s not happening regularly across Weld County where there’s other homes and other families close to wells,” she said “At the very least they should all be checked once a year.”

Matt Lepore, director of the COGCC, said it would be difficult to check all the wells in the county once a year.

There are 28 state inspectors for the roughly 38,000 producing oil and gas wells in Colorado - that’s up from 16 inspectors just four years ago.

“The right number of inspectors is a difficult thing to ascertain, Lepore said. “You know, our inspectors are doing over 1,000 inspections each, per year, but I absolutely think that [Greeley’s fire inspection program] is a way for a jurisdiction to augment the state resources.”

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Credit Jackie Fortier / KUNC

The state prioritizes the wells it inspects based on their proximity to people and if there have been problems at the site in the past. In Colorado, there are about 5,500 high priority wells. Lepore said his staff tries to inspect about 80 percent of the high priority wells annually.

To inspect wells more often, Lepore said his agency would need more staff and funding from the state Legislature.

“More eyes can help, but it won’t change the fact that an inspector can be there today and something can fail tomorrow,” Lapore said. “I mean that’s the reality,”

That only makes Becker want to work harder in Greeley.

“I know in our community, there are wells that have been several years without having an inspection,” Becker said. “And to me, that’s not OK. We have to make sure that the community is safe.”

As the industry continues to invest billions of dollars into Colorado, Becker knows he will only have more work to do in the future. He’s hoping Greeley’s City Council approves funding for a second inspector to help him keep on top of the over 500 oil and gas wells that are already within city limits.

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Credit Chelsie Miera
Jackie Fortier interviews Greg Becker at Greeley's largest oil and gas production site.

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