A Fatal Home Explosion Exposes the Risk of Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells

Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law Joey Irwin were killed in the Oak Meadows subdivision in Firestone, Colorado last month when leaked gas from a severed flow line in an abandoned oil well ignited in the house and caused an explosion. Credit: Getty Images

Oil and gas drilling has boomed across the U.S. in the last decade and shows little sign of slowing. So far in 2017 the number of active rigs has risen a steady 2.1 percent every week. And it’s not just in the empty spaces of the country — almost half of Colorado’s 54,000 active gas wells, for example, are in one of the country’s fastest-growing counties. There are clear risks when oil companies and residents share borders.

No, your water line isn't going to light on fire from bubbling gas leaks — that's been pretty soundly disproven. But an explosion from an abandoned or unmaintained gas pipeline? If a fatal explosion last month in Colorado is any indication, it’s a rare but troubling risk.

Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law Joey Irwin were killed in the Oak Meadows subdivision in Firestone, Colorado, last month when leaked gas from a severed flow line in an abandoned oil well ignited in the house and caused an explosion. After investigation, authorities believe that the odorless gas that caused the explosion seeped into the house from the nearby oil well through French drains and a sump pit. The inactive oil well is owned by Anadarko Petroleum, which had caused the cut in the pipeline when a tank battery was moved before the Oak Meadows subdivision was built, according to local authorities.

While this is a unique and (thus far) singular case, the state of Colorado is now reassessing current regulations on oil wells and their proximity to the public.

Currently, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission requires companies drilling new oil and gas wells to stay 500 feet from homes (unless companies make deals with landowners and get special permission). Under state regulations, local governments determine how close to industry facilities new houses can be built. For Firestone, municipal code allows new house construction as close as 150 feet to existing oil and gas facilities.

It’s easy to focus on the placement of new wells and pipe lines, but a largely overlooked issue regarding established, inactive, and unmaintained wells is coming to light after the tragic Firestone explosion. According to research from High Country News, 90 percent of Colorado’s active wells were drilled years ago, and there are 36,000 abandoned or inactive wells that are scarcely monitored — since state reviews to update policy have failed to require consistency of inspections. Additionally, roughly 60 percent of well casings fail after 25 years, according to research from Cornell University. That means that due to lack of policy, infrastructure, and resources, there are 36,000 chances that another explosion similar to the Firestone incident waiting to happen.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to action from local and national awareness and activism groups. The Colorado Sierra Club is demanding a halt to new oil and gas drilling and Shane Davis — an activist known as “The Fractivist” — has started the circulation of a petition that calls for all active wells in residential areas across Colorado to be shut down.

The oil industry doesn't appear to be arguing against the new measures being taken. In the wake of last month’s explosion, Andarko has turned off all 3,000-plus of its older wells across northeast Colorado. Additionally, Dan Haley, CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the association “supports the state’s call to inspect flowlines and ensure the safety of all Coloradans.” He also referred to the cut flowline as “an unusual set of events.” Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission chief Matt Lepore said that the commission will consider new rules that will require pressure testing for smaller flow pipelines and that rules regarding mapping of pipelines throughout the state also will be reviewed while Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper ordered oil and gas companies statewide to inspect and pressure-test oil and gas flowlines within 1,000 feet of occupied buildings.

However, for many Coloradans, this aftermath-action isn’t enough when ensuring the safety of residents across the state. Activists are continuing to ask for solutions that will require oil companies to make sure things don’t go wrong, instead of regulating what to do when things do go wrong.