In Northern Colorado, two massive industries are colliding: home development and energy development. At the intersection of the two are serious and growing concerns about health and safety.
As more drilling rigs and more subdivisions go up in towns across the Front Range, what happens when people and oil and gas become neighbors?
NOTE: This piece originally aired on the podcast Trump On Earth.
Chapter 1: The Fight
“Whose side are you on? The people of Colorado or the oil and gas executives and the industry?”
“Please wake up, we’re killing ourselves, we’re killing everyone.”
“You just don’t know how much anger there is in this state. You have no clue…Thank you for letting me speak, but you people, you disgust me.”
At a routine hearing at the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission over the summer, the public comment period ran for two hours. Many people were angry, and many blamed the commissioners. These types of heated meetings on oil and gas are going on all over the Front Range.
“I understand. I mean, I see and hear as much of it as much as anybody possibly could that there are communities that really didn’t bargain on this. They did not come to Colorado to participate with oil and gas in their backyard or their neighborhood or however they want to characterize it,” Matt Lepore, director of the COGCC, said in an interivew.
Between 2015 and 2020, population on the Front Range of Colorado is expected to grow by 420,000. The fastest growth in population is forecast for the North Front Range, (Larimer and Weld Counties) at an annual average of 2.6 percent, or 85,000 people. According to an analysis by The Denver Post, both of these counties, and others, are in the path of drilling expansion.
“Much of the controversy we’re seeing can be tied to this fact that in Colorado, as in no other place in the country that I’m aware of, we have this fast growing population in the same place where there is a very, very, very rich shale oil and gas resource,” Lepore explained.”
Chapter 2: The Focusing Event
On April 17th, a home exploded in Firestone, Colo. Neighbors gathered around as the house went up in flames.
“Immediately your mind runs wild with what happened,” Chris Kampmann, a neighbor, explained. “We decide we’re going to try to call for people see if we can hear any voices. This is over all the noise which was fire alarms, people screaming, the creaking of the home…I just remember thinking, there’s nothing I can do. I’m gonna have to walk away from this, knowing there are people in the house.
Two people died. Their names were Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin. Mark’s wife, Erin, was severely burned.
The explosion was caused by a small pipeline leaking odorless gas into the basement of the home. The pipeline had been attached to a nearby oil and gas well owned by a large operator, Anadarko.
The home explosion in Firestone is what’s known as a focusing event, meaning some sort of disaster or accident that makes people sit up and pay attention. Residents start pushing for solutions, and policy makers and elected officials take action.
Chapter 3: The Distance
As homes and drilling rigs are popping up near each other, communities are paying a lot of attention to the distance between the two. That buffer is called a “setback distance” and, in Colorado, a well can be drilled no closer than 500 feet to a home.
A new home, however, can be built much closer to an existing well. That so-called “reverse setback distance” varies widely across the state. In Firestone, the city allows homes to be built just 150 feet away from an existing well. The home that exploded was just 178 feet from the well that was linked to the incident.
Community members have been pushing the state to increase that 500 foot setback but, so far, that’s not on the table.
Joe Ryan, an environmental engineer at the University of Colorado, is working with a team called AirWaterGas to gather more data on energy development, including setbacks. His main issue is that the state’s setback distance isn’t based on any sort of scientific analysis.
“Maybe this is the engineer in me, but can we put some numbers on those things and actually recognize that we all have to weigh that, the benefits against the costs,” Ryan said. “One thing I try to remind people of is that we’re still heating our homes with fossil fuels, almost everybody. We’re still generating a lot of electricity with fossil fuels. We’re still driving around and consuming fossil fuels. So, we’re making choices that create a demand for this activity that’s now hitting us in our neighborhoods and disrupting lives, potentially affecting public health. How much of that are we willing to accept?”
Chapter 4: The Way Forward
There are risks that come with living around oil and gas development. But people are still moving here and drilling rigs are still going up, so communities and energy companies are being forced to figure it out.
Broomfield, a suburb of both Denver and Boulder, is doing just that. The city could soon be home to a new oil and gas project: 84 wells. When the company behind the project approached Broomfield last summer, the city created a task force to draft extensive new oil and gas guidelines. One of the big asks? Larger setbacks. The largest of which would be 1,320 feet.
Extraction, the company proposing the project, offered a suite of "best management practices." Negotiations got under way.
For more on this backstory, check out some of my reporting from Broomfield.
It all came to a head at a Broomfield City Council meeting on Oct. 24th. After nearly six hours of intense public comment, the city council voted on the agreement with Extraction at 1:35 a.m. It passed, 6-4. Drilling could begin in summer 2018.
But legal questions remain. In Colorado, broad regulation of oil and gas falls to the state, not to individual cities. Some in Broomfield are ready to go to court.
“The threat of a lawsuit can never be sufficient to let us abandon our principles. What we know to be right. To act otherwise is, frankly, cowardice,” John Dulles, who lives in Broomfield, said during the October meeting.
Chapter 5: The Site
In September, the remains of the home that exploded in Firestone were finally cleared away. As I watched the excavator’s metal jaws close around blackened siding and other, unidentifiable charred parts, it felt like I was watching the end of a chapter.
As that chapter closes, here are some important developments:
In August, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper announced seven updates to the state’s oil and gas regulations in response to the home explosion. Those changes include stricter pipeline regulations, improved safety training for workers and creating a program to deal with old, abandoned wells.
A lot of people say these changes don’t go far enough. Increasing that 500-foot setback, or implementing a statewide reverse setback, for example, is not on the agenda.
As for exactly what happened with that pipeline, there is still a lot we still don’t know. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
I checked back in with the Kampmanns. The entire family was home during the explosion of their neighbor’s house.“The event,” as they call it, has been a really difficult thing for their two kids. One of them draws pictures in crayon of the event. The other one runs for cover at loud noises.
“Do you want to leave Firestone?” I asked Chris Kampmann.
“No, I don’t want to. I think as a human being, you go, ‘should we?’ You go, ‘Should we for the safety of our family and the prosperity of our own family? Should we?’ That shouldn’t be a question we’re asking today, but unfortunately we are,” Kampmann said.
But then he made an interesting point. There’s been a lot of attention on his neighborhood. Anadarko has disconnected thousands of small pipelines in a process called plugging and abandoning. There’s a hotline. People have gas monitors.
Kampmann said, “We may have inadvertently moved into the safest community in all of Firestone.”