North Dakota adopts rules to reduce oil industry spills

James MacPherson, Associated Press


BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota regulators on Wednesday adopted new rules aimed at reducing spills in the state's oil patch, despite objections by the industry.

The state Industrial Commission approved the rules that include bonding and third-party inspections of gathering pipelines that carry briny oilfield wastewater. Another new rule requires berms at least 6 inches high be built around existing and future well sites to keep oil and saltwater spills from spreading.

The North Dakota Legislature last year directed the Industrial Commission's Oil and Gas Division to draft new rules. The action came in the wake of a 3-million gallon saltwater pipeline leak near Williston in western North Dakota that regulators said was the biggest such spill to occur in the state.

Saltwater is a naturally occurring, unwanted byproduct of oil and natural gas production that is many times saltier than sea water. The briny liquid also may contain petroleum and residue from hydraulic fracturing operations.

North Dakota oil companies have opposed the rules, saying that adding more regulations adds costs to companies that already are dealing with depressed crude prices.

Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, said public hearings on rules were done in several cities in April. Helms' agency regulates the state's oil and gas industry and is overseen by the Industrial Commission, an all-Republican panel whose members are Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.

North Dakota regulators also had been attempting to define who an "interested party" is when it comes to testifying on oil and gas issues, though that was scrubbed after citizens, lawmakers, environmentalists and labor groups blasted the proposal, Helms said.

The rules must still pass before the Legislature's Administrative Rules Committee, which has the power to block, change or delay implementation of new regulations. Helms said October is the earliest the rules could be in place.

Helms said the diking requirement will affect about 4,000 well sites already established in North Dakota.

Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter said the cost at each site, which average about 3 acres, is estimated at about $3,500. But the North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents hundreds of companies working in North Dakota's oil industry, estimates the cost could be at least triple regulators' estimates.

Kari Cutting, vice president of the oil group, said building berms around well sites creates more problems than they solve, holding snowmelt and rain water that create small lakes at every well site.

"It turns them into ice-skating rinks in the winter," she said.

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