After the wells go dry
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North Dakota state leaders don’t agree when it comes to reclamation results
For Petroleum News Bakken
North Dakota’s oil play brings plenty of benefits, but it also leaves some wondering what the landscape will look like in years to come.
State regulators, industry and commissioners from oil impacted counties met recently to discuss some of the issues that have surfaced since oil development emerged. One that brought some inconsistent reports was reclamation.
North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, DMR, Public Information Officer Alison Ritter presented photographs and data to the group showing that more than 8,400 wells have been reclaimed over the state’s history, and the reclaimed sites looked fairly untouched. She said the current well pads are better organized, so reclamation should be easier in the years to come. Due to the variations of North Dakota soils, Ritter said reclamation standards are flexible because they need to be site-specific.
“We think our standards work pretty well,” Ritter said. “It can take years to reclaim a site, but it’s not complete until we look at a site and are satisfied, and the landowner is satisfied.”
But the state’s chief Department of Health official, Dave Glatt, said he receives daily calls from landowners who speak to the contrary.
“The surface looks good, but it’s lipstick on a pig,” Glatt said. “There are saltwater brine impacts, and we’re getting close to where we’ll have lawsuits on this.”
Questioning reporting accuracyGlatt said the state needs to go beyond the surface and review the subsurface, and he believes the issues from 30- to 40-year old wells are “coming back to bite us,” he said.
“There is a lot of buzz on the brine issue. We get those daily. Farmers are losing productive land and we need to find a way to get that land back into production.”
Some Bottineau County commissioners, landowners and the county’s emergency manager are some of the people creating that buzz and joined forces last year to get the state’s attention.
The group’s most recent letter to the Industrial Commission, dated Feb. 12, states they are “very alarmed that the spill quantity and the amount recovered are not accurately being reported.”
They cite two large saltwater spills in Renville and Antler townships that are currently being reclaimed. The Renville pipeline break was reported in July 2011 at 300 barrels, with later estimates at 50,000 barrels, but the Department of Health website database does not reflect the change. In Antler township, analysis shows thousands of barrels were released from a disposal saltwater line break in 2013, yet none were reported.
“If this type of reporting is common across western North Dakota, the consequences to our land and water is devastating and make a mockery of public reported spill statistics,” the letter states.
Abandoned wells reclamation fund may not go farBottineau County is also home to many of the old, conventional wells, where saltwater spills left soils damaged and were never properly reclaimed.
In 2013, the legislature developed an abandoned oil and gas well plugging and site reclamation fund. Its monies are available April 1, 2014, to pay for those sites that require clean-up but, but the legislation did not identify parties responsible for the reclamation.
Northwest Landowner Association Vice Chairman Troy Coons said he believes many landowners will take advantage of the fund, but since it caps at $75 million, he doesn’t believe it will go very far.
“It was a fight to get to $75 million,” Coons said. “It could be gone so quick in this kind of situation. Saltwater is definitely worse than crude, and it moves so freely in the soil. Each time it rains, the salt will move, so $75 million isn’t a big number.”
Limited ways to deal with brine waterGlatt told Petroleum News Bakken in an email that best management practices have evolved over the years, but methods to deal with spills of North Dakota’s high salt-concentrated brine water are limited.
Crews can remove the contaminated soil and dispose of it in a special waste landfill, or they can use natural/physical or chemical methods to drive the salt below the root zone in the soil profile.
“In the natural/physical or chemical application methods, the brine salts stay in the soil profile and are not removed. There have been cases where the contaminated groundwater is removed through pumping of various configurations of wells — this process is time intensive with mixed results to date,” Glatt said.
The state is exploring various other reclamation methods, but Glatt urges the focus to be on prevention.
“As for any chemical, the prevention of spills through proper maintenance and operation coupled with robust detection and spill response actions will help to reduce the impact of any unauthorized release,” he said.
Researching better waysStudies are being conducted to find ways to improve reclamation in the state. The Oil and Gas Research Council has earmarked $500,000 for the University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center to work with North Dakota State University, NDSU, on waste reduction, offering an official utilization of drill cuttings from a well, along with water recycling and saltwater remediation or reclamation.
NDSU has also partnered with Alliance Pipeline to conduct a study of native grassland reclamation methods. The $70,000 Alliance-funded study was launched in November, and spans the Tioga Lateral natural gas pipeline right-of-way area that runs between Tioga and Sherwood. The goal is to find the most effective way to reestablish native vegetation using different application methods for seed mixes. The study will be conducted over the next five years, with each site visited in the spring, summer and fall to document progress.
Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, believes these studies, along with any solutions that come from the state’s pipeline technology working group or right-of-way task force, will give a better picture of what practices operators should use.
“Whether it’s remediation or reclamation, I think the concept is to get folks who understand North Dakota soils to do some research,” Ness said. “And then we have to look at our practices and see how they relate to North Dakota soil and Bakken drill cuttings.”