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Home Explosion Brings Calls For Safety But No Quick Fix

DENVER (AP) — Colorado regulators have ordered a snap review of oil and gas pipelines after a fatal house explosion near a well, but they haven't said how they plan to fix a fundamental flaw in the system: They don't know where all those pipelines are.

Matt Lepore, the state's top oil and gas regulator, said Thursday he believes his agency has the authority to tell energy companies to submit the data needed for a pipeline map and does not need the Legislature's approval.

firestone house explosion (1)
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But Lepore said he first wants his staff to get through the fast inspections that Gov. John Hickenlooper ordered after an April 17 explosion killed two people in the town of Firestone.

Lepore then wants a public discussion about whether his agency — the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission — is best suited to compile and keep the map, or whether it should be local governments or someone else.

matt lepore firestone house explosion
COGCC Director Matt Lepore (credit: CBS)

"Local governments, for example, have construction drawings and sewer infrastructure drawings and I assume water infrastructure drawings," Lepore said in an interview. "They already have lots of maps and information about things that are underground."

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, and lawmakers from both parties say the state needs a map after the Firestone explosion. Investigators blamed gas seeping from a severed underground pipeline, called a flow line, designed to carry oil or gas from a well to a storage tank or other collection point.

John Hickenlooper
John Hickenlooper (credit: CBS)

Colorado has 54,000 active wells and thousands of flow lines. But no one knows how many, or where they all are.

The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission already has an interactive online map that provides a wealth of information about wells, but Lepore said it does not have the same kind of information on flow lines.

Despite public alarm after the explosion, Hickenlooper and lawmakers said the Legislature is unlikely to take any action this year. The Legislature wraps up next week, and next year's budget is already set.

Mark Martinez and Joey Irwin were killed in a home explosion in Firestone in 2017. (credit: CBS)

Some lawmakers said they want to know more about what happened in Firestone.

"Without knowing exactly what the circumstances were and what had happened, it's hard to get anything done in the last three days, to get the stakeholders together and find a solution," said Republican state Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan.

"It would have to be researched over the summer to come back next session," he said.

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Colorado cannot pass a new law in less than three days, and lawmakers had just five working days left on Thursday. They had more than 300 bills to settle before leaving the Capitol, including measures to fund public schools and repair crumbling highways.

Oil and gas safety has been one of the most hotly debated items in the Colorado Legislature in the past decade. Drilling disputes have divided Democrats and led to lawsuits and threats to bypass lawmakers and take safety enhancements to voters.

firestone gas well house explosion copter4
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Hickenlooper, who famously drank drilling fluid a few years ago to show that it was safe, has insisted that lawmakers not impose safety mandates on the industry but leave that to the oil and gas commission. That has chafed many allies in his party.

Colorado has a Democratic House and a Republican Senate, making bipartisan agreement a requirement for passing a bill. On a touchy subject like restricting one of the state's largest and most influential industries, consensus can be elusive.

Firestone home explosion (7)
(credit: CBS)

Some Democrats weren't ruling out a hasty attempt to expand well inspections, despite the long odds of success.

"It's incredibly important to the people of Colorado," said House Democratic Leader KC Becker, who is not related to Jon Becker.

Democrats say it's too soon to identify what the Legislature could do to improve the safety of old well lines. Investigators did not announce their findings about the Firestone explosion until Tuesday.

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Copter4 flew over the state Capitol (credit: CBS)

"The problem is, we only heard about the flow line issues just about 48 hours ago, so we have to gather together and see how we can respond in a responsible way," said Democratic Rep. Mike Foote, whose home is less than 10 miles from the explosion.

"I don't know how that's going to come out and whether there is enough time on the clock."

By DAN ELLIOTT and KRISTEN WYATT, Associated Press

Associated Press Writer James Anderson contributed to this report.

(© Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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