Well flaring not prohibited by Stage 2 fire restrictions
July 4, 2012
GARFIELD COUNTY – Fire restrictions for public and private lands in Garfield County do not prohibit the flaring of natural-gas wells, and at least one resident wonders why.
“I just don’t know how they get the ability to do that,” said Dry Hollow resident Debbie Guccini. She lives within a mile of a Bill Barrett Corp. well that she said has been flaring gas every day for some time.
“It seems like it could be a fire hazard,” she said.
Industry and government officials, though, said flaring poses little fire hazard because flaring vents are high off the ground and do not emit sparks or flaming debris.
“If it’s in a flare stack, that’s not a high risk,” said Dave Boyd, public information officer for the BLM. “But we are discussing it.”
Guccini said she understands that the wells emit “clean” gases that contain no solids that could create embers or sparks. But flaring generates considerable heat, and she worries that nearby brush and grasses could burst into flame unexpectedly.
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Guccini took a photo of a flaring instance on June 30 in the Dry Hollow area.
“It was almost 100 degrees out there, and the wind was blowing. And everything out there is dry,” she said.
Fire officials and industry representatives say flaring is not seen as a wildfire hazard because it is done in areas scraped free of trees and grasses, and the flare nozzle itself is far above ground.
Orrin Moon, fire marshall for the Burning Mountains Fire Protection District, recently visited the Barrett well that has Guccini worried.
“I didn’t see any issues of concern,” Moon said, explaining that the area around the well pad was cleared of brush and grasses and other vegetation.
He also noted that the flare nozzle was about 20 feet off the ground, a distance he said provided a margin of safety between the flare and combustible vegetation.
Bill Barrett Corp. officials did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Doug Hock, a spokesman for the Encana Oil and Gas (USA) company, said Encana no longer flares its wells in Garfield County and relies instead on “green completion” techniques that send all the gases straight into a pipeline for processing and sale.
“Certainly in a case like this, in high fire danger, we’d avoid flaring,” Hock said, although it’s not an issue for Encana wells.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management issued a 14-point fire prevention order in late June that spells out specific Stage 2 fire restrictions for oil and gas operations that go beyond the Stage 2 restrictions imposed for the general public.
The fire order notes that “flaring is discouraged.” The guidelines require companies to notify BLM in advance of flaring, to notify the agency within two hours if emergency flaring must be done, and to have a person onsite to continuously monitor flaring operations.
All gas industry work locations must be equipped with a 500-gallon water supply, a pump, a 250-foot hose and a three-inch nozzle that can deliver at least 20 gallons per minute of water, according to the fire order.
BLM’s oil and gas Stage 2 fire order also lays out safety guidelines for spark-causing activities at natural gas well pads such as welding, grinding, cutting steel and pipeline construction.
But the BLM’s Stage 2 fire order covers only about one-third of the county’s approximately 9,400 active gas wells, Boyd said. The order applies only to wells that are on public lands or tap publicly owned gas reserves.
All other wells on private lands fall under the the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), the county sheriff and local fire districts.
“At this point, we do not have any regulations in place, and I do not expect us to put any in place,” said Thomas Kerr, acting director of the COGCC, regarding restrictions on flaring for fire-safety reasons.
He explained that the COGCC, which oversees gas and oil drilling in the state, leaves fire control efforts to the fire departments and local governments that cover the areas where oil and gas activities take place.
Local fire departments, which cover private and public lands, have no restrictions about flaring specifically.
Guccini said she called 911 about the flaring she observed in Dry Hollow. Guccini reported that dispatcher told her the flaring was OK because it was above ground, but to call back “if it gets out of control.”
Kevin Whelan, fire marshall for the Rifle Fire Protection District, said, “The oil and gas industry is regulated differently. Obviously, they can’t stop flaring, or other things that are important to their industry.”
Some fire departments have enacted rules restricting a variety of industrial activities, including the use of chainsaws and electric tools that grind or cut metal, that would also apply to the gas industry.
Burning Mountains Fire District EMS coordinator John Gredig said that district added metal-grinding restrictions because the activity wasn’t specifically addressed in the public Stage 2 fire restrictions imposed June 22 by the BLM, Forest Service and Garfield County.