After years of spills, N.D. still deciding how to handle pipeline leaks

By Mike Lee | 10/29/2015 08:08 AM EDT

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — As the number of pipeline spills rises in the Bakken Shale field, North Dakota appears to be leaning away from requiring new leak-prevention equipment.

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — Almost a year after a leaking pipeline spilled 1,000 barrels of salty brine, the hillside below the site is reduced to bare dirt.

A trench flanked by an orange safety fence cuts down the slope. Plastic pipes run alongside an unnamed creek at the bottom of the hill.

The leak occurred in a gathering pipeline that collects oil-field wastewater from a well site off County Road 29, about 15 miles northwest of Watford City.


Pipeline spills, particularly the ones involving the briny wastewater from oil production, are a prime source of worry for McKenzie County Emergency Manager Karolin Jappe. McKenzie is the biggest oil-producing county in the state and has been home to some of the state’s worst pipeline spills, including a 1-million-gallon spill into Charbonneau Creek in 2006 and another million-gallon spill north of Mandaree in July 2014.

"I really want to protect the private property owners," Jappe said. Some property owners have suffered long-term damage from oil and brine spills, "and I don’t want that to happen on my shift."

Watford City leak
Orange fencing surrounds the scene of a 2014 pipeline leak that released 1,000 barrels of oil field brine outside Watford City, N.D. | Photo by Mike Lee.

Landowners and environmentalists, who have pressed the state for tougher standards on gathering lines, won a partial victory in the spring when the state Legislature set aside $1.5 million to study the use of flow meters and leak detection equipment on gathering pipelines.

But the researchers and regulators involved in the study appear to be leaning away from tougher standards.

"Leak detection … on complex gathering line systems is not a mature science or market," Jay Almlie, research manager at the University of North Dakota’s Energy & Environmental Research Center, said at the North Dakota Petroleum Council’s annual meeting last month.

The decisions being pondered this year are important because oil companies are projected to build another 36,000 miles of gathering lines as the Bakken Shale is developed, on top of the roughly 4,000 miles that have already been built, according to figures from the state Department of Mineral Resources.

"If they’re going to waste time studying it instead of getting some sort of on-the-ground solution, it’s certainly a missed opportunity," said Wayde Schafer, an organizer for the Sierra Club in North Dakota.

Pipeline spills can have bigger impact

The Bakken boom took off about 2007, when companies began using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to break open the rock and release oil and gas. Shale development tends to multiply the need for gathering lines because a lot of the fracturing fluid comes back to the surface and because the process requires constant drilling to keep up production.

The number of oil and wastewater spills has increased steadily, as oil production shot up from about 115,000 barrels a day in 2007 to 1.2 million barrels a day this year. North Dakota had 1,846 spills in 2014, up from 1,607 in 2013, and more of them went uncontained than in previous years — 24 percent in 2014 compared with 20 percent in 2013, EnergyWire reported (EnergyWire, Sept. 29).

Pipeline spills can have a bigger impact than incidents at well sites because they occur in remote areas, away from the containment berms that surround most sites. Of the five biggest uncontained spills in the last 12 months, three came from pipelines, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

Even more troubling for landowners, some of the biggest spills tended to come from wastewater gathering lines. The brine is several times saltier than seawater and can basically sterilize the soil where it spills.

More spills lead to more study

The Northwest Landowners Association, an influential group of farmers and ranchers, pushed the state Legislature to enact tougher standards for gathering lines in 2013. The Legislature declined to take action but came under further pressure this year.

In January, another brine pipeline leak was discovered outside Williston. It had apparently leaked for days before it was found, and as much as 3 million gallons escaped, fouling Blacktail Creek, the Little Muddy River and a section of the Missouri River (EnergyWire, Jan. 27).

Three months later, with the cleanup of Blacktail Creek still underway, the Legislature approved the bill that includes the pipeline safety study.

The bill, though, requires the study to analyze whether North Dakota has more spills than other large oil-producing states. It also said the study had to determine whether monitors and leak detection systems are cost-effective.

The U.S. Transportation Department started studying leak detection systems, after a massive oil spill in Michigan in 2010 that went on for hours before being stopped. A 2012 report by the consulting firm Kiefner & Associates said "the cost-benefit for these systems is typically very good."

The federal agency has proposed new rules that would require leak detection systems on the systems it regulates (EnergyWire, Oct. 2).

The federal rules apply only to long-haul pipelines, though. University of North Dakota researchers, along with the North Dakota Petroleum Council, question whether leak detection systems will be effective in the Bakken.

"Gathering pipelines are very different from transmission lines, I would assume the type of technology you need is also different," Kari Cutting, a vice president at the council, said.

Balancing money, safety

The University of North Dakota’s Almlie and fellow researcher John Harju said they’re unsure how to balance cleanup costs against the costs of installing the new safety equipment. A lot of information on cleanup costs isn’t publicly available, partly because it takes so long to clean up major spills, Harju said.

The Blacktail Creek spill outside Williston is still being cleaned up, for instance, as is the July 2014 spill outside Mandaree.

The state Department of Mineral Resources said it could provide only a rough estimate of the cost at four major spills, after consulting with the companies involved — $40 million for four of the biggest spills.

In an interview, Harju said it’s also important to look at other factors, such as whether the number of spills has risen faster than the state’s oil output.

The cost of cleaning up a spill is "a key parameter but not the only one," he said.

Back in McKenzie County, the company responsible for the 2014 pipeline spill said its mitigation "has been very successful." The company, Houston-based Oasis Petroleum Inc., is still monitoring the soil and water at the site, according to an email from a consulting firm.

Since the spill in McKenzie County last year, Oasis has had a 1,500-barrel brine leak in Burke County. And on Oct. 17, one of its wells in Mountrail County had a blowout that released 2,500 barrels of oil and 2,500 barrels of brine, most of which was contained on the site.

For Jappe, the emergency management director in McKenzie County, the details of the study are less important than the outcome. Like a lot of county officials, she’s in favor of oil development and says the bulk of the oil companies operate safely but wants the state to take stronger action against the ones that don’t.

"I’d just like to see more oversight," she said.