'It's A Balance': Colorado Oil And Gas Regulators Weigh Mapping Of Flowlines

Nov 19, 2019

This week, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, is meeting to vote on new rules to regulate flowlines in our state. Flowlines are the underground pipelines that connect oil and gas wells to storage tanks.

This is the second wave of proposed changes since a 2017 flowline leak caused a deadly home explosion in Firestone. 

Jeff Robbins, the director of the COGCC, joined KUNC's Colorado Edition to discuss the proposed changes. 

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Jeff Robbins, director of the COGCC.
Credit Courtesy of the COGCC

Henry Zimmerman: The past few weeks, the COGCC has been debating back and forth whether or not to map flowlines. Can you start by explaining to our listeners what the current system for mapping flowlines is? 

Jeff Robbins: So the current system that was adopted in 2018, following the Firestone tragedy, is that flowlines are mapped, but we map them from endpoint to endpoint. So we know where what are called the risers are. So for all flowlines in Colorado, we know where the flowline starts and where the flowline ends, but we don't necessarily have a map of the lay of the flowline between the two endpoints. 

And that's one of the changes that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will be debating this week in Greeley at our hearings, is whether and to what extent we should have actual mapping of all flowlines, including the actual location. 

And in a statement you released a while ago, you mentioned that you and your staff had heard from stakeholders, and you had drafted some rules for the commission to take into consideration. Can you tell me about those rules? 

Some of the big ticket items that we're discussing is again the mapping of flowlines and whether and to what extent we should have accurate maps of all flowlines within the state. We also are debating the concept of making those maps publicly available, and if they are made publicly available on our website, to what spatial extent we should make those available. 

Looking at how the federal agencies deal with mapping, they do allow for pipeline mapping to be made available, but at a certain spatial extent, that information goes away. So it's a balance between making sure that the public has an information base about where flowlines are, with also making sure that we're being protective and we're not providing too much information about specificity of flowlines. So those are some of the big ticket items that the commission will be focusing on this week. 

The Firestone residence, before and after the accident.
Credit Weld County (left photo) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (right photo).

Can you explain further some of the concern about a map that is perhaps too specific with providing information to the public? 

There's basically two concerns about that. One is that we want folks to always call the Colorado 8-1-1 line when they are planning on digging in and around flowlines. The 8-1-1 process provides definitive location assessment on the ground. We don't want to create a mapping protocol that folks could look at and then feel like there's not a need to call 8-1-1. So that's point number one. 

Point number two is we have of this 46 stakeholders, heard from a number of them that there is a concern about having too much information online, so we want to make sure that we're protective in that regard.

It seems that COGCC is between a rock and a hard place in the middle of industry interests and public safety concerns. And I'm sure that the truth is somewhere in the middle along with COGCC. But can you explain what that's like with having to manage industry and the people of Colorado's interests in all of this? 

The COGCC, I as director, my commissioners, we're all trying to make sure that we take our legislative mandate from Senate Bill 181 and implement it in a fashion that is in accord with what the legislature asked us to do. We're certainly trying to achieve a balance. 

I've gone on record that I believe that the legislature was suggesting that there should not be bans on oil and gas development, nor should there be free passes for oil and gas development, and that does make the job of the Commission a difficult one and a challenging one, but we're doing everything we can to insure that balance is achieved. 

This conversation is part of KUNC's Colorado Edition for Nov. 19. Listen to the full episode here