Top Ten Stories of 2017 #7: The House That Blew Up

Like smoking, lawn darts, and bars on cribs spaced just far enough apart for babies to stick their heads through, oil and gas development in Colorado wasn’t always considered to be a problem. It wasn’t controversial for several reasons–in addition to the lack of public knowledge of the health and safety risks. For decades, Colorado’s “split estate” mineral rights law establishing property rights under the surface of the land in addition to the rights of landowners on the surface operated without major conflicts. Colorado’s wide open spaces gave drillers plenty to explore, and the population centers along the Front Range didn’t have the most easily-accessible minerals underneath them.

But over time, two things happened: the increasingly urban Front Range started to expand into energy-producing areas, and a maturing technology for extracting oil and gas known as hydraulic fracturing put minerals under residential communities within economical reach. Because under Colorado law mineral rights have parity with the rights of surface landowners, within regulations controlled by the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission drillers are routinely allowed to override local zoning and place heavy industrial operations in the immediate vicinity of homes and schools.

As the political battle between concerned residents of local communities threatened by drilling and the energy industry has heated up in recent years, the industry has spent lavishly to influence Colorado’s political leadership on both sides of the aisle. This has resulted in gridlock at the Colorado legislature on the issue, especially for the last seven years under an avowedly pro-energy Democratic governor and frequently split control of the General Assembly. When citizens turned to the state’s initiative process to get relief by popular vote, the energy industry bankrolled 2016’s Amendment 71 to make it prohibitively harder to get constitutional measures on a statewide ballot.

Entering 2017, the fight over oil and gas drilling in Colorado was simmering but hardly boiling over. The success of Amendment 71, and the likelihood of no real movement on the issue until after Gov. John Hickenlooper leaves office, combined with the much bigger threat of the Trump administration over this and so many other issues left supporters of better protections feeling defeated.

On April 17th, a recently-built home in Firestone north of Denver suddenly exploded, killing two people and severely injuring two others inside. The home was totally destroyed in the explosion, which also damaged nearby homes and caused a fire that took hours to extinguish. Investigators determined that a flow line connected to a disused well owned by Anadarko Petroleum had not been properly disconnected from the well. Raw methane gas, lacking the telltale additive to warn of high concentrations by smell, began to flow again through this line, accumulating undetected in the basement of the home until being ignited accidentally by the homeowners with tragic results. After the explosion, more underground plumes of methane in the immediate area were discovered and vented.

The Firestone home explosion immediately brought the issue of oil and gas production near homes back to the fore. In this case, homes were built near abandoned wells from which methane had seeped, but that certainly doesn’t absolve the industry of responsibility of not just properly capping old wells but ensuring all infrastructure in place for energy extraction is rendered safe before homes are built over them. And obviously, if the industry is this careless with abandoned flow lines, it invites basic questions about how careful the industry is with everything else they do.

But in Denver, the industry’s sway over leadership on both sides of the aisle ensured little would change. A limited set of reforms announced by Gov. Hickenlooper in August fell pitifully short of addressing concerns, as the Denver Post reported:

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is asking oil and gas operators to pony up money to plug the 700 to 800 “orphan wells” in the state, but is shying from taking stances on more contentious policies, such as how close new homes can be built to existing wells.

The governor also won’t force the energy industry to allow state officials to compile a publicly available map of all oil and gas pipelines. Instead, he said he wanted to enhance the 811 call program to ensure homeowners can use their telephones to access pipeline information for site-specific areas. Hickenlooper said industry officials were concerned a comprehensive statewide map could lead to people illegally tapping pipelines to siphon off gas. [Pols emphasis]

Hickenlooper’s thoroughly ridiculous contention that scavengers might “siphon off gas” if the public is made aware of oil and gas pipelines running through their neighborhoods, and that this concern somehow trumps the rights of residents to know where these potentially deadly gas lines are located in relation to their homes, perfectly symbolizes the tone-deaf approach of his administration on oil and gas drilling–arguably Hickenlooper’s greatest failure in office. There is simply no way to overstate how offensive this was to concerned citizens in Firestone and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the industry attempted to vilify gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis by proxy in municipal elections in Greeley this fall, linking his donations to city council candidates with his support for better protections from drilling. That attempt turned disastrous after one of the candidates backed by the industry was revealed to be a convicted felon and whose seat on the Greeley City Council is now in doubt. It’s fair to say that Polis, who doesn’t support a “statewide fracking ban” but has supported initiatives for local control and wider setbacks from drilling, is not under the industry’s thumb. As a result Polis is set to face the most shrill attacks imaginable from the industry and their many supporters next year–to include lots of affected hand-wringing from pro-energy Democrats during the upcoming gubernatorial primary.

It has been our contention since before John Hickenlooper won the governor’s race in 2010 that at some point, Colorado Democrats will face a seminal choice–to continue alienating their base of support and swing votes in impacted communities by currying favor with the oil and gas industry in this state, or to face them down on behalf of affected communities once and for all. We believe based on our years of experience that the political risks to Democrats standing up to oil and gas are much smaller than conventional wisdom suggests, and indeed that much of said “conventional wisdom” is a fabrication of the industry’s bought-off mouthpieces in both parties. On the other hand, this issue has done more to anger the Democratic base in Colorado than perhaps any other in recent years, making the benefits of a new approach easy to recognize.

What’s it going to take for Democrats in Colorado to remember where their loyalties should lie?

The right candidate. And an election to prove it.

36 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. ModeratusModeratus says:

    Colorado Pol's endless demonization of one of the state's biggest job creators is proof that YOU are out of the mainstream not Hickenlooper. I hope Democrats go all out on killing the energy industry in Colorado in 2018 like Jared Polis says!!!

    • unnamed says:

      Regulations bad.  Reasonable regulations are killing an industry.  No regulations.  Because jobs.  Who cares if people die because Andarko could not be bothered to conduct a little oversight on wells they used near peoples' homes?  Right Whiffer?

    • Diogenesdemar says:

      The house-splodin’ industry, even with its demolition clean-up crews and its morticians, has been rapidly replaced by several different real job creators in Colorado.

      . . . Funny thing, even some Republicans appear to have trepidation about having their homes and their children blown to kindling???

    • RepealAndReplace says:

      Nutlid, if feeding rat poison to children provided jobs for people, you'd be cheering the industry on, asking that Trump give it tax breaks.

      Democrats are not opposed to energy (we like solar, we like wind). Just the toxic forms.

    • Genghis says:

      lol

      Online discussions about the O&G industry often end up in Lulztown, but they rarely get there via the "What's The Big Deal About Negligent Homicide?" Express.

  2. VoyageurVoyageur says:

    That freezin in the dark thing isn' quite as much fun as the hard left thinks.  When I see their Volvos powered by windmills, I'll take them more seriously.

    Or not.

    • bullshit!bullshit! says:

      Dang Veeg. Proving ‘em right again I see.

    • mamajama55mamajama55 says:

      You mean like this hydrogen fuel cell powered car, V?

      Or perhaps this (it's even a Volvo) Tesla electric car, slated to be marketed in 2019.  You can run an electric car on wind or solar or fossil-fuel generated electricity….if you live in the right market.

      Tesla even has an electric semi truck and bus set to roll out in 2019.

      Most consumers can choose to buy blocks of wind power from their utilities. (I can't , because Pawnee don't play that way, but someday….)

      And some of these consumers are driving electric cars, or Priuses that recharge from their own braking energy. So it's already happening, V, just on a limited scale.

    • MichaelBowmanMichaelBowman says:

      30,000 times more solar energy falls upon the Earth every day than we consume; if we converted the ag waste generated annually to advanced biofuels we could displace upwards of 30% of our liquid fuel supply (note to our Senators: get rid of the blend wall). All that without touching the potential of algae, green anhydrous or the fact we could make internal combustion engines 50% more efficient.  All of this would bouy our rural economies, btw.  

      Yes, we like our beer cold and our showers hot. No, we don’t have to have fossil energy to achieve those lofty goals. 

  3. unnamed says:

    So, I think most of us agree that we need to move to clean and sustainable energy.  Aside from nutlid.  We don't agree on how to get there.  

     

    Can we all agree that houses blowing up and people dying all as a result of O&G negligence is bad, is a big deal and must be prevented?  I know nutlid is fine with stuff like that, but hopefully the rest of us aren't.

    • VoyageurVoyageur says:

      The real negligence in that case was with the county, allowing new homes to be built in an area sown with abandoned gas lines.  Those were abandoned decades before Anadarko bought the sucessor companies.  I'm surprised we don't build subdivisions in Minefields.

       

      As for the notion that two deaths require the abolition of a major industry, I assume we are all agreed that no more cars can be run in Colorado, which is now a bicycles only state.

      • Diogenesdemar says:

        Hey, hey, hey . . .

        . . . I was specifically promised by the United Nations that our scheme to make everyone in Colorado ride bicycles would never never ever be made public?!? . . . 

        . . . did you get that from Alex Jones or Nicki Haley?

      • Duke CoxDuke Cox says:

        It isn't just two deaths, V. This is just one example of the results of regulations that are designed and paid for by the industry being regulated. O&G development is vast and sprawling. No one really keeps track and lots of things fall through the cracks. The companies do pretty much as they please..safety is NOT Job 1. Lots of people are injured and killed by inadequate enforcement of existing regulations and rules.

        The sooner we reduce the role of fossil fuel to the industrial supply chain, the better. We don't need it for making electricity and we sure as hell don't need it for transportation fuel. We should be supporting development of non-fossil fuel based systems with rabid intensity. And yet we continue to pour billions of dollars of taxpayer money propping up an industry that is killing the planet.

        To imply that criticism of this industry is unwarranted because its impact is insubstantial is silly, V. It needs to go because it needs to go. It has outlived its usefulness and now needs to be phased out as fast as the human race can accomplish it. Now is the time…we need to leave it in the ground.

        • VoyageurVoyageur says:

          Earth First!  Drill the other planets later!

          • Diogenesdemar says:

            Ok, admittedly it’s crappy duty, I know. And, I’ve never understood why we had to do it anyway (Sorus? – go figure, huh? . . . ).  And, yes, it’s even worse on this long three-day weekend.  But, I think you’re making it much worse than it has to be, at least from my recollection of the instructions I was given . . .

            . . .  So, anyway, when it is your weekend, you’re only expected to water Moderatus — you’re not required to post his blargle for him (no matter how much he fusses and cries and has a fit) . . . 

            . . . if it gets too unbearable inside, you can always do what I did last time — set him in the garage and let the dogs “water” him (h/t Duke).

            On the bright side, you probably won’t get stuck with this odious duty again for at least a year.  Chin up and best wishes for the new year, V!

             

          • Diogenesdemar says:

            PS.  Next time, maybe try to avoid winter duty?  Then you can just set him in the yard and let the sprinklers hit him, and you’ll never even have to take him inside!

        • mamajama55mamajama55 says:

          🐬🌲🌿👏👏👑🇱🇷🌏🗺🌄

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