Mark and Julie Nygren didn’t set out to be activists, but they are suggesting changes to the oversight of Colorado’s oil and gas pipelines based on their experience of losing their home and seeing part of their farm contaminated by a leaking gas line.
More than four years after discovery of the leak, the Nygrens are still renting a house in Johnstown, just north of their Weld County property, and remain embroiled in a lawsuit against DCP Midstream Operating Co., which owned the pipeline. As the Colorado Public Utilities Commission considers new pipeline-safety rules, the Nygrens want to share their hard-won insights with regulators.
“We’re farmers, we don’t want to be activists. But we also want our neighbors and our communities to be safe and we are concerned that not enough attention has been paid to our situation to correct it from happening to someone else,” Julie said in a recent interview.
The PUC was set to hear from the public Thursday on proposed rules that would implement a 2021 law requiring the state to strengthen safety rules and adopt state rules as needed to comply with federal requirements.
The hearing follows a blistering critique of the state’s oversight of natural gas pipelines. A 121-page report released June 14 by the state auditor said the state’s Gas Pipeline Safety Program repeatedly violated state and federal regulations.
The problems cited in the audit ranged from inadequate inspections to a lack of documented action against repeat offenders even following explosions that killed and injured people.
For now, the Nygrens hope the PUC will strengthen draft rules on using advanced technology to detect leaks and require the annual reporting of leaks. The state and the federal agency that oversees pipelines, Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA, require reports only when an incident kills or hospitalizes someone; causes property damage of more than $122,000; or unintentionally releases 3 million cubic feet of gas, enough to power 17,000 average households for a day.
While the state considers new rules, PHMSA is going through its own update to improve safety and reduce emissions from lines. The state and PHMSA regulate different pipelines, depending on the size of line, whether it crosses state lines and what type of liquids they carry.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission oversees flowlines, which connect an oil or gas well to surrounding equipment. The American Petroleum Institute-Colorado said in comments to the PUC that it expects the federal agency to pass a comprehensive approach and asked the state to wait until PHMSA acts.
If the PUC moves ahead, oil and gas companies could end up facing conflicting state and federal rules, API said.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association supports mapping pipelines as long as the safety and security of the lines are considered, said Dan Haley, the organization’s CEO and president.
“We also support advanced leak detection technology and in most cases our members are already utilizing the technology to ensure safe and environmentally conscious operations of pipelines in Colorado,” Haley said in an email.
But COGA also believes the PUC should wait to issue new rules on leak-detection requirements until the federal agency approves new regulations.
The Nygrens don’t want the PUC to wait and said in a statement the state could make changes later if necessary. They said several people involved in the state’s rule-making process have advocated requiring advanced leak-detection methods.
Colorado Communities for Climate Action, whose members include representatives of 42 local governments, supports requiring companies to use the latest technology to detect pipeline leaks.
“We know what these problems are. They’re well documented. They occur in significant numbers and result in significant impacts and in some cases tragic impacts,” said Jacob Smith, executive director of the climate action group. “Yet we find ourselves fighting with the industry to step up and resolve even the really obvious problems that they know are easily solvable.”
Under the PUC’s draft rules, companies would have to report whether they’re using advanced technology and explain why if they are not. The rules being considered by PHMSA would simply require the latest technology.
The law that mandated updating state regulations requires the regulations be at least as strict as PHMSA’s rules.
The Nygrens said they will keep pushing for stronger rules. Meanwhile, they said they don’t know when they’ll be able to build a new home on their property. Their lawsuit against DCP Midstream seeks compensation for the home, business losses and health problems they attribute to what their complaint says was an ongoing leak over several years.
“From Day 1, when they found the leak and when they found out that it was under and all around in our home, Julie has been very strong in her feelings about how many other people could be going through this and not know it. We didn’t,” Mark said.
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