'They're Everywhere': Oil, Gas Wells Dot Developments, Raising Potential Dangers

May 15, 2017
Originally published on May 15, 2017 4:40 pm

A few weeks ago Julia Chapman's daughter was heading to a playdate across the street in their recently built suburb in Firestone, Colo. Suddenly, the friend's house exploded, killing two of the friend's relatives who were in the basement.

"It shook our home," Chapman says. "We came out and we saw that it was essentially just collapsed on itself. The insulation was still floating in the air, down the street."

It turned out a pipe from a nearby oil and gas well had been abandoned, but not properly sealed. The April 17 tragedy just north of Denver is prompting a lot of questions about how wells are regulated, something Chapman says she never thought about when she bought her house.

"We just sort of trusted that the city and the oil and gas knew what they were doing," she says.

Colorado's chief oil and gas regulator, Matt Lepore, called the explosion "highly unusual," but the state is now reviewing its oil and gas operations.

The destroyed home was built 178 feet from an existing, dormant well. Anadarko Petroleum switched it back on in January. Unrefined gas started flowing into an old, 1-inch plastic pipe, called a flow line. It was supposed to be sealed — but it wasn't.

The unscented gas seeped into the soil near the foundation of the home, filling the house through a drain in the basement.

Lepore says a new state directive orders inspections of these flow lines if they're within 1,000 feet of an occupied building, "to seek to absolutely minimize any possibility of this happening again."

In Colorado and many other places, suburbs are expanding into areas that used to be oil and gas fields.

"They're everywhere," says Shane Davis, an anti-oil and gas activist who runs a blog called fractivist.org. On a recent tour of Firestone, he points out just how close some of these houses are to wells and khaki-colored oil and gas tanks.

"All of this should be banned in residential areas," Davis says. "There's no reason for this in residential areas other than profit."

Inside Energy finds that over the past several years, 50,000 more people in Colorado now live in areas where there is at least one well per square kilometer.

Colorado and California are the only two states that regulate the flow lines coming out of these wells.

Still, in Colorado a comprehensive state map showing where these lines are does not exist. And while new oil wells must be drilled at least 500 feet from homes, there is no state regulation for how far new homes must be built from existing oil wells.

"That dramatic of a setback, is really, really hard to stomach," says Gregory Miedema, who heads the Northern Colorado Home Builders Association.

He says contractors are willing to consider new regulations on this, but he warns it could drive up prices. "What they want to make sure is that they don't price the public out of a new home."

And there is still a lot of demand for new homes here.

In fact, right behind the site of the home explosion, workers are busy with the construction of a new apartment complex, with nearly 300 units.

Dan Boyce is a Colorado-based reporter with Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focusing on America's energy issues. You can follow him @BoyceDan.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Colorado is reviewing its oil and gas operations after a house blew up last month, killing two people. A pipe from a nearby oil and gas well had been abandoned but not properly sealed. The tragedy is prompting many questions about the regulation of wells. Dan Boyce with the public media collaboration Inside Energy reports.

DAN BOYCE, BYLINE: Julia Chapman's just pulled into the garage of her home in Firestone, Colo., just north of Denver.

JULIA CHAPMAN: Girls, can you grab some groceries, please?

BOYCE: Two young daughters.

CHAPMAN: Twin boys that are almost 2.

BOYCE: Oldest daughter Gillian is 10. And on the afternoon of April 17, she and her sister were right here on their front porch. They'd just gotten permission to go play at their friend Jaelynn's house.

GILLIAN: We were standing right there. We turned around, and the house exploded.

BOYCE: Jaelynn's house just across the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: The remains of two people have been pulled from the rubble of this house explosion in Firestone.

GILLIAN: The house just split open. You could see the upstairs.

CHAPMAN: The insulation was still floating in the air down the street.

BOYCE: It turns out Jaelynn was not home at the time, but her dad, Mark Martinez, and uncle, Joey Irwin, were in the basement, and they were killed in the blast. Julia Chapman says when they bought their house, neighboring oil and gas sites just weren't something they thought about.

CHAPMAN: We just sort of trusted that the city and the oil and gas knew what they were doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

MATT LEPORE: What is taking place here is highly unusual.

BOYCE: That's Colorado's chief oil and gas regulator Matt Lepore speaking at a recent press conference. The Martinez home was built 178 feet from an existing dormant well. Anadarko Petroleum switched it back on in January of this year. And when they did, unrefined gas started flowing into an old 1-inch plastic pipe called a flow line. It was supposed to be sealed but it wasn't. Lepore says a new state directive orders inspections of these flow lines within the month if they're inside a thousand feet of an occupied building.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

LEPORE: To seek to absolutely minimize any possibility of this happening again.

BOYCE: In Colorado and many other places, suburbs are expanding into areas that used to be oil and gas fields.

SHANE DAVIS: So if you know what to look for, there's one right there too to your left.

BOYCE: I'm driving around Firestone with anti-oil and gas activist Shane Davis. He runs a blog called fractivist.org.

DAVIS: They're everywhere.

BOYCE: He's pointing out just how close some of these houses are to wells and khaki-colored oil and gas tanks.

DAVIS: All of this should be banned in residential areas, period. There's no reason for this in residential areas other than profit.

BOYCE: Colorado is one of only two states that actually regulates the flow lines coming out of these wells. Still, a comprehensive map showing where these lines are does not exist. And while new oil wells must be drilled at least 500 feet from homes, there is no state regulation for how far new homes must be built from existing oil wells.

GREGORY MIEDEMA: That dramatic of a setback is really, really hard to stomach.

BOYCE: Gregory Miedema heads the Home Builders Association of Northern Colorado. He says contractors are willing to consider new regulations on this, but he warns it could drive up prices.

MIEDEMA: What they want to make sure is that they don't price the public out of a new home.

BOYCE: And there is still a lot of demand for new homes here. In fact, right behind the site of the Martinez home explosion, workers are busy with the construction of a new apartment complex with nearly 300 units. For NPR News, I'm Dan Boyce, in Firestone, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF J.S.T.A.R.S. SONG "TRIPPING THE LIGHT FANTASTIC")

SHAPIRO: The story comes to us from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.