After the Firestone Tragedy, We Need Facts, Not Political Games
As a former energy reporter and an advocate, I have worked with hundreds of oil and gas professionals through the years. Most live here in Colorado. Many are close colleagues and friends. Please believe me when I say they are shocked and anguished over the Firestone tragedy.
The Martinez and Irwin families have suffered terribly and deserve nothing less than a full investigation. For this reason, the men and women of Colorado’s energy sector are working closely with officials to determine the causes and prevent them from happening again. If that requires new regulations or tougher enforcement of existing laws, the state’s energy professionals will be willing partners in that effort. It’s who they are.
At the same time, decency demands that activists and elected officials should not prejudge the outcome of the investigation or exploit the situation politically. Unfortunately, there are signs of environmental politics taking over, which is troubling. All sides should show some restraint.
Here’s what investigators have concluded so far: An abandoned natural gas flowline was severed near the foundation of the Martinez home. The buried line was from a nearby well, drilled more than 20 years before the house was built. When and how the abandoned line was severed remains under investigation.
Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District Chief Ted Poszywak has said that “an unusual and tragic set of circumstances occurred” and the search for answers continues. The investigation, however, quickly concluded the threat “was isolated to the immediate site and that residents and buildings outside of the site were in no danger.”
Poszywak told reporters earlier this month, “I also want to note, given the attention on this issue, the proximity of the well to the home was not a contributing cause. The distance to the wellhead was not a factor.”
Yet anti-fracking activists are using the tragedy to demand “an immediate injunction … on all oil and gas activity.” Conservation Colorado issued a similar demand, with Sierra Club and 350.org calling for an “immediate suspension” of all permitting. In other words, the same statewide ban on new drilling activists have sought all along, even though new drilling wasn’t at issue in Firestone.
Some elected officials have followed suit. U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, who sponsored a series of anti-drilling ballot measures in 2014, issued a statement using Firestone to push the same ideas all over again. “We cannot continue to delay local control, stricter safety standards, and greater setbacks,” he said.
The setback between wells and occupied buildings he proposed in 2014 was 2,000 feet — four times the current minimum and a measure that would “drive oil and gas out of Colorado,” Gov. John Hickenlooper said at the time. Recently, state Sen. Matt Jones also invoked Firestone to propose the same distance — 2,000 feet — between new homes and existing wells.
Investigators have said nothing about a 2,000-foot setback, much less a statewide drilling ban. In fact, investigators clearly stated the distance between the well and the home was not a contributing cause. The severed flowline is their focus.
In a recent interview, Hickenlooper warned oil and gas critics not to take the “terrible tragedy” in Firestone and “turn it into a political argument.” The governor and state regulators have ordered a statewide program of inspections and integrity testing for existing and abandoned flowlines. The results of these inspections and the ongoing Firestone investigation will provide the facts we need to properly debate the best way forward.
The situation we face today is similar to the historic 2013 floods. In the immediate aftermath, activists used the disaster and its impact on energy infrastructure to demand a statewide drilling ban. But state regulators concluded those calls were unfounded. Instead, after determining the facts, they made some focused rule changes for oil and gas operations in flood plains.
Today, we must wait for the facts and stick to the facts. This is no time for political games.
Simon Lomax is a research fellow with Vital for Colorado, a coalition of state business leaders focused on energy policy.