State oil panel seeks better disaster response

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission had no contacts with emergency response authorities, no emergency checklists or manual, and no formal agency-wide emergency training when floodwaters battered Northern Colorado almost seven months ago.

“We could have done better, and that’s what we’re going to try and put in place,´ said Alan Gilbert, flood response specialist for the Department of Natural Resources, which houses the oil and gas commission.

Gilbert and other staff members conducted an assessment last month of the state oil commission’s response to days of flooding in mid-September. The 44-page report, “Lessons learned in the Front Range flood,” looked at ways the state agency could improve its response during the next disaster. Flood response remains critical because more than 20,850 oil and gas wells lie within 500 feet of a river, stream or drainage in Colorado.

The report made a number of recommendations, including requiring oil companies to better anchor their oil tanks to the ground and developing better relationships with emergency response authorities.

Floodwaters led oil and natural-gas companies to suspend production on nearly 2,700 oil and natural-gas wells in Northern Colorado. The torrent toppled oil tanks, spilling more than 48,000 gallons of oil, although authorities said the spills paled in comparison with sewage and household and industrial chemicals that mixed in with the deluge.

Before the storm, the state oil commission had not developed relationships with key emergency-response authorities at Colorado’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management or county emergency authorities. In the report, staff members recommended that the agency maintain these relationships even when no emergencies are taking place.

“We didn’t know those people beforehand, but established the relationships as they called or we called them,” Gilbert said.

The agency would “be much better prepared to assist in the next emergency that affects oil and gas operations” with those relationships, according to the report.

The state oil commission also had no emergency-response manual that it could use in the early, chaotic period of an emergency. Such a manual could have contained valuable checklists and descriptions that would help staff members respond quickly, safely and effectively, according to the report.

Furthermore, state oil commission staff members had no agency-wide emergency-response training at the time. Staff members suggested that they participate in an annual training exercise that should be done in consultation with state emergency- response officials.

“If we had had more training up front before the emergency within the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, we would have had a better understanding of what everyone was doing under this incident-command structure,” Gilbert said. “We could have helped them more.”

Still, the agency received mostly high marks from officials who spoke with BizWest about its response during flooding.

State oil commission officials worked well with the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said Kevin Klein, director of the emergency-management agency. The agency consulted with the state oil commission and natural resources department on technical and regulatory matters, while coordinating with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and Environmental Protection Agency on emergency response.

One area of improvement could include making sure that first responders have access to information about what kinds of materials might be stored at oil and gas facilities, Klein said. Other situations to evaluate would include better information on locations of oil tanks and containment ponds affected by flooding.
Once the emergency-management division received soil tests indicating that the floodwaters had diluted the hydrocarbons enough that they did not pose a threat during the flood, authorities shifted their focus to other problems.

“From my perspective, the big issues were not what would be under the regulatory scope of the commission,” Klein said. “To me, the big issues were food, shelter, re-establishing life lines.”

Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway said the state oil commission and the oil industry did well in their response and their collaboration with county officials, although the county plans its own evaluation in the coming months.

State oil commissioners are scheduled to decide whether to pursue new rules at their meeting April 28.

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