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A deadly home explosion renews debate on drilling near homes

Marketplace Contributor Jun 15, 2017

A deadly home explosion renews debate on drilling near homes

Marketplace Contributor Jun 15, 2017

This is what authorities say happened: For three months, natural gas from an old but still active well ran through an uncapped pipeline. It seeped through the soil and into the basement of a home in the city of Firestone, 30 miles north of Denver. When the gas finally ignited in April, the home was leveled and two men inside were killed.

A couple of years earlier, the city of Firestone filmed a promotional video where the former mayor talks up the innovative schools and low tax rates in front of snow-capped mountains. 

“We have abundant land and infrastructure for development. When you consider all of these things, it’s no wonder that the U.S. Census Bureau found that Firestone was the fastest-growing community in Colorado over the past decade.”

One other important thing that isn’t mentioned: The landscape is filled with oil and gas wells, many connected through a web of underground pipelines.

The fatal home explosion in Firestone rocked the state’s oil and gas industry, and renewed a bitter debate about drilling in urban areas, especially when it comes to how close homes should be to these operations.

Sam Mamet is with the Colorado Municipal League, which lobbies on behalf of cities. He said cities have to grow as the state’s population balloons, and Colorado’s 54,332 active oil and gas wells aren’t going anywhere.

“That’s just the sobering reality of the situation,” Mamet said. “And no one can really change that ostensibly, unless they just want to impose growth moratoria in these communities, and that is not likely to occur.”

And many Colorado cities like Firestone are maximizing their precious land. The home that was destroyed was just half a football field away from a 30-year-old well. Anadarko Petroleum, the owner of the well, said it’s cooperating with federal and local investigators. And the company is being sued by nearby homeowners for loss of value to their homes.

Matt Lepore, Colorado’s top oil and gas regulator, argues that he can’t restrict where homes are built. When the state limited fracking to 500 feet from homes, he got an urgent call from an official in a fast-growing city.

“He wanted my absolute reassurance that if we had a 500-foot setback he could still approve residential building within 200 feet of the well,” Lepore said. “And I said ‘Yes, sir, that is the way the law works.’”

Besides, he said the proximity to the well was not necessarily the problem in the Firestone explosion. It was the proximity to what was believed to be an abandoned flowline. These lines are supposed to end at tanks that collect the gas and oil, and they can stretch far from producing wells.

“If the line ends 6 feet from the basement foundation and gas flows through it, you’re going to have a problem,” he said.

So to some, restricting where homes can be built next to wells makes no sense. Gregory Miedema, who runs the Northern Colorado Home Builders Association, said builders need to be able to put houses on as much land as they can to make the numbers work.

Otherwise: “Increase setback, reduce density, higher home costs, because they’re not making any more land,” Miedema said.

People are moving to these fast-growing outer suburbs to escape Denver’s high housing costs, he said. A three-bedroom home in Firestone costs about $350,000. In Denver, it can be double that.

Matt Sura, an environmental attorney, said his focus has always been on restricting where new wells are put because those are the bigger, noisier, more intense operations. 

But when it comes to the state’s legacy of existing wells, “unfortunately the die is cast. We’ve got so many oil and gas wells that are sprinkled throughout these communities that we’re going to have to figure out a way to coexist,” Sura said. That can be achieved by creating tougher regulations and adding more inspections to ensure safety, he said.

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