ND oil workers see hours cut as oil prices slump

Oilfield workers who had their hours drastically cut due to low oil prices meet with representatives from Bridger Transportation Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2015, at a job fair in Williston, N.D., for crude oil haulers. Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service

WILLISTON, N.D. – Ahmed Osman recently worked 16-hour days hauling water and sand used to frack oil and gas wells in western North Dakota.

But Osman now sees mostly eight-hour days as companies in the Bakken respond to low oil prices by cutting operations.

“It’s very slow,” said Osman, a truck driver who moved from Fargo to Williston last year.

Osman, afraid he may get laid off, was among many workers who stopped by a job fair in Williston last week for a company in a different sector of the oil industry that is hiring.

“We are worried about it,” Osman said. “That’s why we’re looking at other opportunities.”

North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness said he expects companies involved in drilling and exploration will make substantial cuts as oil prices hover below $50 a barrel. Many will start by cutting overtime and housing allowances but also may cut jobs, Ness said.

“As we move into spring and into June and those rigs are laddered in, you’re going to see some pretty substantial correction in terms of activity,” Ness said. “If prices change, that will change. At this point, I think companies are preparing to buckle down the hatches and cover the costs and try and reduce costs where possible.”

North Dakota’s drilling rig count was 146 on Friday, down about 40 from mid-December. The Department of Mineral Resources estimates that every rig supports about 120 jobs. Ness estimates that figure at about 180 jobs.

Using those estimates, the drop in drilling rig count has potentially affected 4,800 to 7,200 jobs in North Dakota in six weeks.

“It’s not just the guys on the rigs,” said Williston oilfield worker Shad Frederick. “Everything they use is brought in on a truck.”

Frederick, from Boise, Idaho, works for a company that keeps equipment used for drilling and fracking fueled. He recently returned from two weeks off to find his hours suddenly cut from 80 to 90 a week to 40.

When a major oil company cut back on how many drilling and fracking crews it contracted with, that trickled down to workers like Frederick, as well as others who haul drill pipe, repair equipment or do other work that supports the drilling activity.

A recent CNN story attracted a lot of attention for a quote from MBI Energy Services CEO Jim Arthaud that predicted North Dakota would be down to 50 rigs by June.

“I’d say we’ll lose 20,000 jobs by June,” Arthaud is quoted in the CNN story. Cell phone messages left for Arthaud by Forum News Service were not returned last week.

The Department of Mineral Resources projects the rig count will go no lower than 120.

“We think 50 rigs is pretty pessimistic,” spokeswoman Alison Ritter said. “We don’t see things happening that drastically.

Oil field service companies Schlumberger and Baker Hughes, both major employers in the Bakken, have announced they will have thousands of layoffs in their operations worldwide. Both companies declined to answer how many layoffs are planned in North Dakota.

Halliburton, which employs 1,500 workers in North Dakota, has not had any workforce reductions in the state, a spokeswoman said. The company will continue to monitor the business environment and make adjustments as needed, she said in a statement.

Reduced hours and uncertainty about the low oil prices may cause some workers to return to their home states.

Losing quality employees will be a major concern for oil companies as prices recover.

“It’s hard to get people back,” Ness said. “You want to keep your quality workforce to the extent possible.”

Oasis Petroleum is among the major Bakken operators making cuts this year. The company has announced it will reduce its rig count from 16 last year to six by the end of March, as well as delay other well completions this winter.

While Oasis has had to let a number of contractors go, the company does not plan to lay off any of its 320 workers in North Dakota, said Larry Skaare, director of community affairs.

“We’re trying to do our best as far as a company goes to make sure that all of our employees are protected,” Skaare said. “We’ve got to be able to ramp down and ramp up at the same time.”

Frederick said he knows other service company workers who have left after seeing hours reduced, but he’s trying to find a new opportunity that would allow him to continue earning good wages in North Dakota.

“For somebody with experience, there’s still money here,” Frederick said.

Other sectors of the oil and gas industry will continue to have demand for workers even while drilling slows, such as staff to maintain the wells that are producing. The Department of Mineral Resources estimates prices would need to drop to $15 a barrel before continuing production would cease.

In addition, workers will be in demand to continue building out infrastructure to process and capture natural gas, Ness said.

Bridger Transportation hosted job fairs in Williston and Dickinson last week to hire truck drivers to haul crude oil. The company has about 35 employees in North Dakota and officials said they have enough work to easily double that number of drivers even while oil prices are low.

“The drilling may stop, but oil’s got to be moved,” said Justin Olson, area operations manager.

Testimony in flaring bill raises idea of eminent domain

BISMARCK – A bill seeks to further restrict natural gas flaring in North Dakota, but an industry group leader testified Friday that bold actions such as “quick take” eminent domain may be necessary to eliminate flaring.

Landowners promptly denounced the eminent domain idea Friday and said the industry’s poor track record of spills and working with landowners is why many are hesitant to grant pipeline easements.

Senate Bill 2287 would reduce the length of time a well can flare from one year to 90 days. It also would limit the volume of natural gas that can be flared each day and remove some exemptions from the current flaring policy.

The bill comes from a legislator from eastern North Dakota, where there is no oil activity or natural gas flaring. But Sen. Jim Dotzenrod, D-Wyndmere, testified that voters in his region were frustrated last year to pay high propane prices while natural resources were being wasted elsewhere in the state.

“I felt I couldn’t let this session come and go without adding my voice to those who feel we really need to get more serious about this flaring problem,” Dotzenrod said in an interview after the bill’s hearing in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, opposed the bill Friday and said the industry is already striving to meet new gas capture goals set by the North Dakota Industrial Commission that require production restrictions if goals aren’t met.

“This bill is punitive, does not coincide with that order and will have substantial negative impacts on oil activity, further impact on jobs, tax revenues and investment into natural gas infrastructure,” Ness states in written testimony.

Difficulties gaining easements from individual landowners and the bureaucracy involved for pipeline routes on federal or tribal lands are the major roadblocks to reducing flaring, Ness said. He cited examples involving three parties who are holding up easement agreements over a fraction of the pipeline access needed to capture a substantial amount of natural gas.

But if North Dakota had “quick take” eminent domain rights to acquire pipeline rights, as some other states do, the flaring could be reduced quickly, Ness said.

“lf an immediate reduction in flaring beyond the goals currently in place is your priority, then, yes, we can deal with that goal, but only if you are willing to reverse the long-standing state policies which block our ability to do so,” he said.

Ness told committee members that if they are seriously considering Senate Bill 2287 or similar proposals that they should add these concepts into the bill:

- Recommend a constitutional amendment creating a “quick take” provision so that if 85 percent of easements have been obtained, the operator may obtain immediate access to the remaining non-consenting landowners’ property.

- Direct the Industrial Commission to consider exemptions from the flaring policy if companies can document that operators acted in good faith to capture natural gas but could not reach an agreement with landowners.

The executive director of the Dakota Resource Council, which had several members testify in favor of restricting flaring Friday, called the eminent domain idea another heavy-handed tactic from the Petroleum Council.

“Here we are, trying to fix a flaring problem, and they come in with this draconian crocodile tears proposal,” said Don Morrison.

Landowners are reluctant to grant pipeline easements because of the large number of spills that have occurred and because some companies have violated terms of agreements, trespassed or refused to work with landowners on the placement of pipelines, Morrison said.

“They need to take responsibility for their very poor track record of working with landowners,” Morrison said. “Instead of that, what they do is they want to use even heavier handed tactics than they already have used.”

Dotzenrod said after the hearing that he’s never liked eminent domain and would like to see that as a last resort after other measures are exhausted.

Another possible option is to consider an exemption from the flaring policy if companies can document that they’ve made good faith efforts to obtain easements and install pipelines, Dotzenrod said.

The committee did not take action on the bill Friday.

Bill would give elected leaders final say on oil penalties

By Amy Dalrymple and Katherine Lymn
Forum News Service

BISMARCK – A bill introduced by a Democratic legislator would require elected officials to sign off before fines levied against oil and gas companies are reduced.

Senate Bill 2342 from state Sen. Tyler Axness of Fargo would require the North Dakota Industrial Commission to vote on any settlements with oil companies stemming from violations of the state’s rules.

Currently the Department of Mineral Resources director has the final signature on settlements of civil penalties.

The bill would require the Industrial Commission  - made up of the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner – to publicly vote by roll call to accept or reject a settlement. If they reject it, the settlement would go back for renegotiation.

“We want our elected officials to have the final say,” Axness said Thursday.

The Department of Mineral Resources proposes penalties for oil and gas companies that commit violations and routinely suspends up to 90 percent of the fine in settlement agreements. The practice drew public criticism following a report by the New York Times last year.

Director Lynn Helms defended the practice Wednesday during an Industrial Commission meeting.

“I think the No. 1 thing to point out is that since 2006 with the suspended penalties, we have had zero recidivism, we have had zero repeat offenders,” Helms said. “So the concept of leaving 75 to 90 percent of the penalty hanging over their head for one to five years causes them to change their processes and behaviors and results in long-term compliance with our rules, and that’s our real goal.”

The settlement agreements require companies to have no repeat offenses of the same or similar violation during the suspension period. It does not refer to a different type of violation, spokeswoman Alison Ritter said.

In all cases that have been resolved from 2013 and 2014, the suspension period was for one year, according to information presented by Helms. Ritter said there have been three- and five-year suspensions in the past.

Axness said the perception is that North Dakota is too lenient with penalties. More severe fines would deter bad actors from repeat violations and deter other businesses from breaking the rules, he said.

Helms told commissioners that the suspended fines force companies to review those violations routinely in their safety meetings to prevent repeat offenses from occurring, a sort of probation. Helms also said it’s important for the public to know that the Industrial Commission can propose a penalty and the only way to collect the fine other than to reach a settlement agreement is to sue in district court.

“I am a firm believer that the process that is being utilized by the Oil and Gas Division is super effective, and it’s really making a difference in changing the everyday worker out there and changing their behavior,” Helms said.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Industrial Commission chairman, said during the meeting there ought to also be a punitive penalty in cases that involve someone who intentionally broke the rules.

In those cases, criminal charges also may be filed in addition to civil penalties.

Dalrymple said Helms’ rationale for how the Oil and Gas Division penalizes companies is a “fair explanation.”

The Industrial Commission plans to oppose the bill, Ritter said.

The bill has been referred to the Judiciary Committee. A hearing had not been scheduled Thursday.

Pipeline spills have state leaders looking for answers

Workers tethered to an air boat for safety squeegeed oil into holes or slots in the ice-covered Yellowstone River near Glendive, Mont., on Monday, Jan. 26, 2015. The oil was then scooped up into hand buckets or via a 2-inch suction line. Kathleen J. Bryan/Forum News Service

By Katherine Lymn and Amy Dalrymple
Forum News Service

BISMARCK – The North Dakota Industrial Commission called Wednesday for better monitoring of pipelines and higher standards for those that cross major bodies of water as crews continue cleaning up two major pipeline spills that affected the state’s waterways.

Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Industrial Commission chairman, also said the state should speed up research on new technology that could prevent pipeline leaks.

A pipeline rupture spilled nearly 3 million gallons of brine near Blacktail Creek north of Williston this month, also affecting the Little Muddy and Missouri rivers. In eastern Montana, a pipeline leaked oil into the Yellowstone River, affecting the water supply for the town of Glendive, Mont.., and threatening drinking for downstream communities, including Williston, N.D.

“I think everybody is really concerned about the last couple of spills. And the saltwater line in particular,” Dalrymple said. “We are in the process of developing a comprehensive set of rules regarding that type of line but we maybe want to accelerate a couple of pieces of that.”

The Industrial Commission now has oversight over about 20,000 miles of small, gathering pipelines, such as the 4-inch saltwater line in the Williston spill, and other pipelines that gather oil, natural gas and other liquids. The commission implemented new rules last year in response to a bill approved by legislators two years ago.

The Industrial Commission now has funding for three pipeline inspectors who would monitor such gathering lines, but oversight of the pipelines has been minimal because there have not been qualified applicants for the jobs.

Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, said the legislative action years ago was a first baby step, but significantly more needs to be done.

Senate Bill 2374, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner of Dickinson, would require more safeguards for gathering pipelines installed after June, 30, 2017, specifically flow meters, automatic shutoff valves, and pressure cutoff switches. The bill also would require that all pipelines be permitted and bonded.

Helms said the bill moves the discussion in the right direction, but he was concerned about requiring specific safeguards in the law when better technology may be available.

“What I don’t want the legislation to do is lock us into 20th century technology,” Helms said.

The saltwater line that leaked had the safeguards being proposed in the bill, Helms said.

Helms also said requiring a permit for all small pipelines does not make sense to him and would require his office to add staff, but requiring permits for pipelines that cross bodies of water or are near water “would be absolutely appropriate.”

“Whether it be the Yellowstone River or a sizeable creek, that’s when we’re vulnerable to the impacts of a spill. Most vulnerable,” Dalrymple said. “In the case of water supply, I think we really need to talk about an even stronger standard in those locations.”

After the spill in the Yellowstone River water had to be trucked in for residents of Glendive until it was deemed safe.

Dalrymple said the Williston saltwater spill, which involved a pipeline that was only 6 months old, raises questions for him about materials that are used for pipelines. He said inquiries into the materials ought to be accelerated as well.

The pipeline that ruptured is constructed of a composite material called Fiberspar LinePipe.

“The material from this latest spill has been used all around the country but it may be a problem in our climate,” Helms said. “We just don’t know. The investigation’s not complete.”

Helms said it may be a good idea to work with the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota to build sections of pipe to test materials and study technologies.

Dalrymple also said the bill is a good start, but the language about technology may need to be more general.

“We’ve all heard about some new things that are just appearing, sonar and other methods of (leak) detection. We need to be on top of those opportunities,” Dalrymple said.

Enbridge project director: Sandpiper pipeline plan could be in jeopardy

By Robb Jeffries
Forum News Service

ST. PAUL – Regardless of environmental feasibility, the Sandpiper pipeline project might not happen if the originally proposed route is not followed.

Paul Eberth, Sandpiper’s project manager, testified Tuesday at an evidentiary hearing for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission that the North Dakota Pipeline Company, a subsidiary of Enbridge, may scrap their application for the roughly 616-mile pipeline if it doesn’t follow what the company deems as critical factors in the application — a pipeline that stretches from near Tioga, N.D., to Clearbrook, Minn., and on to Superior, Wis.

Eberth was asked if a pipeline built along one of the eight proposed “system alternatives” — routes proposed by entities other than NDPC, most of which do not pass through Clearbrook or Superior — could benefit the local economies of towns near the route.

He agreed towns along system alternative routes would benefit financially from having a pipeline near them, but said he doesn’t think any pipeline outside of Enbridge’s preferred route would actually be built.

“I personally don’t think those benefits would be realized because there isn’t economic support for the system alternatives,” Eberth said.

Economic support comes in the form of shipping agreements, and Eberth said the agreements Enbridge have secured hinge on the Sandpiper’s route passing through Clearbrook and Superior.

“The system alternatives proposed by others are fundamentally different projects,” Eberth said after Tuesday’s session. “Connections at Clearbrook and Superior are the underpinnings of our contracts with shippers and our approved Federal Energy Regulatory Commission rate structure. There is no commercial support for the system alternatives.”

That particular route gives Enbridge a high degree of interconnectivity to existing terminals and pipelines. Oil could be sent from the Clearbrook terminal to Twin Cities refineries, while Bakken crude sent to Sandpiper’s proposed terminus could be sent south to refineries in Illinois. Routes that do not hit those two terminals give Enbridge’s clients, the oil companies shipping the crude oil from the Bakken, fewer options on where to refine their product, Eberth said.

The evidentiary hearing will continue daily at 9 a.m. through Friday in St. Paul. Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman, who is presiding over the hearing, will submit a report to the PUC in April, with a final decision on the project’s certificate of need coming from the commission in June.

Pending approval of the certificate of need, the tall task of approving a route will be the next order of business for the PUC.

Warm temps hurt spill cleanup near Williston

Crews work to recover oil from Blacktail Creek north of Williston, N.D., on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, after a pipeline leak released nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater that included some oil. Photo courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency

WILLISTON, N.D. – Temperatures that reached into the 50s here Tuesday hampered cleanup efforts at the site of a massive pipeline leak, making the contamination spread more quickly into the state’s waterways, officials said.

Melting snow and increased flows made it difficult for cleanup crews to collect some of the contamination in Blacktail Creek, said Dave Glatt, chief of the North Dakota Department of Health’s Environmental Health Section.

A pipeline leak discovered Jan. 6 by Meadowlark Midstream spilled an estimated 70,000 barrels, or nearly 3 million gallons, of saltwater near Blacktail Creek about 15 miles north of Williston. A significant but unknown amount of the contamination spilled into Blacktail Creek, which runs into the Little Muddy River and eventually the Missouri River, Glatt said.

“When things start melting and things start flowing fast, it’s difficult to collect that water,” Glatt said. “The good thing is it’s dilution water, but it’s also taking some of the contaminated water along with it.”

The saltwater, a waste product of oil and gas production, contained a significant amount of oil as well, roughly estimated to be about 60 barrels, or 2,520 gallons, Glatt said.

An estimated 4 million gallons of water has been removed from the site, a combination of contamination, snow melt and other water, he said.

Impacts to the surface water quality have been observed as far as the Little Muddy River near the confluence with the Missouri River, said a report from the Environmental Protection Agency, which is also involved in the spill cleanup, along with other state and federal agencies.

No drinking water has been affected. Crews will continue monitoring groundwater in the area, as well as take samples in Lake Sakakawea, Glatt said.

Meadowlark, a subsidiary of Summit Midstream, has hired remediation consultant Stantec to oversee the cleanup.

Crews had removed truckloads of water from the creek and constructed dams in some areas to collect contamination before it moved downstream. But the unseasonably warm temperatures in recent days caused snowmelt and other water to flow over those dams, said Kent Luttschwager, a representative of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department who visited the site Tuesday.

“There’s so much water coming at them compared to what they were dealing with that it’s making their cleanup operations very difficult,” Luttschwager said.

An assessment of the impact to wildlife will be difficult until after the ice melts, said Luttschwager, wildlife resource management supervisor.

“It will be significant,” Luttschwager said.

The levels of chloride and ammonia detected near the pipeline rupture are “acutely toxic” to fish, Glatt said.

Chloride levels near the pipeline rupture were estimated to be as high as 90,000 parts per million, compared to a typical level of 10 to 30 parts per million, Glatt said. Ammonia levels were estimated as high as 400 parts per million compared to a typical level of less than 1 part per million, he said.

Officials are still investigating how long the pipeline had been leaking before the rupture was discovered Jan. 6, Glatt said. Right now investigators are considering a window of between Dec. 24 and Jan. 6 to try to determine how many days it was leaking, Glatt said.

The section of pipe that ruptured is being analyzed to determine what caused the leak. The pipeline had a hole in the top portion of the pipe, Glatt said.

Health officials have told Meadowlark they plan to take enforcement action in this case, but a notice of violation won’t be issued until more information is gathered, Glatt said.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission, which oversees pipelines such as this 4-inch line, also is investigating the spill and could take its own enforcement action, spokeswoman Alison Ritter said.

Luttschwager said Tuesday the spill highlights the need for better spill prevention for pipelines.

“The volume of water that was lost is alarming,” Luttschwager said. “We just can’t have these significant releases like this ongoing for an extended period before they’re noticed. … I think we have to be really cognizant of effects of multiple spills and what will that do to our fish and wildlife resources.”

Hess will cut spending but keep drilling in Bakken

WILLISTON, N.D. – Hess Corp., one of North Dakota’s largest oil and gas producers, will cut spending and operate fewer rigs in the Bakken this year, but plans to drill almost as many wells as last year.

Hess plans to operate an average of 9.5 rigs in North Dakota in 2015 and bring an additional 210 oil and gas wells online, the company announced this week.

In 2014, Hess operated 17 rigs in the Bakken and added 238 new wells.

Hess plans to spend $1.8 billion in the Bakken in 2015, compared to $2.2 billion in 2014.

“Hess has some of the best acreage in the Bakken, and we will continue to drill in the core of the play which offers the most attractive returns,” Greg Hill, president and chief operating officer, said in a news release.

The number of wells drilled in 2015 will not change significantly, despite the lower rig count, due to efficiencies and improvements Hess has made to drilling and completions, spokesman John Roper said.

The company has not laid off personnel and has no plans for layoffs, Roper said.

The bulk of Hess’ budget in the Bakken will be spent on drilling and completion, pad level facilities and low-pressure gathering lines. About $350 million is planned for major infrastructure projects, including a high-pressure pipeline and compressor project that will improve gathering of natural gas and further reduce flaring.

State inspectors missing from the pipeline puzzle

WILLISTON, N.D. –  State oversight of more than 20,000 miles of underground pipelines has been “very, very minimal” as it struggles to hire qualified inspectors, a spokeswoman for the North Dakota Industrial Commission says.

New rules approved by the Industrial Commission that took effect last year govern small gathering pipelines such as the pipeline that spilled nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater near Williston this month, the state’s largest spill on record.

Meadowlark Midstream, a subsidiary of Summit Midstream Partners, learned of the rupture of a 4-inch pipeline on Jan. 6 and last week estimated the spill amount to be 70,000 barrels, or nearly 3 million gallons. Some of the produced water entered Blacktail Creek and eventually the Little Muddy River. Cleanup efforts are ongoing.

The installation of that pipeline last June was not inspected by the state, said Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources.

Although the new rules related to such pipelines took effect last April, funding for three pipeline inspectors did not become available until after that pipeline was installed, Ritter said. The department began advertising the positions in late July, but has been unable to fill them, she said.

“We just have not found the right people to hire yet,” Ritter said.

If the Industrial Commission were fully staffed, state pipeline inspectors would visit the sites, talk to company representatives and observe the installation process, Ritter said.

“Being there to see what’s going on is a big piece of the puzzle that we don’t have right now,” Ritter said.

One Department of Mineral Resources field inspector has assisted with monitoring pipelines, but inspections of pipeline installations have been “very, very minimal,” Ritter said.

Field inspectors who do routine inspections of oil and gas wells and saltwater disposal wells check for disturbances on the surface that may indicate a problem underground, Ritter added.

Under the new requirements, pipeline operators are required to submit an affidavit stating that the pipeline was constructed in compliance with state rules. Companies also are required to submit information such as how deep the pipeline is buried, what leak or spill monitoring methods are in place and the type of fluid it carries.

The rules apply to underground gathering pipelines that transfer oil, gas, saltwater and other liquids and are not monitored by other state or federal agencies.

“Most companies that I’ve heard from say the best form of prevention starts with installation practices,” Ritter said.

Some legislators pushed unsuccessfully for additional safeguards for saltwater lines during the last legislative session. Derrick Braaten, a Bismarck attorney who represented landowner groups, said Monday the Industrial Commission’s new rules did little to prevent major spills.

“They’re kind of meaningless rules, in my opinion,” Braaten said.

A bill introduced late Monday would require all pipelines installed after June 30, 2017, to have flow meters, automatic shut-off valves and pressure cutoff switches.

“It’s very difficult to know when one of these pipelines ruptures and how to prevent a small spill from becoming a catastrophic spill,” said Assistant Minority Leader Corey Mock, D-Grand Forks, one of the bill’s sponsors.

Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner of Dickinson is the prime sponsor. The bill also would require all pipelines, including saltwater lines, to be permitted and bonded. In addition, it requires a study of technology to detect or prevent pipeline leaks.

Information about what safety mechanisms were in place on the Meadowlark pipeline that ruptured was unavailable Monday.

The pipeline had a metering system in place, but Industrial Commission officials were still assessing Monday what kind of technology and procedures Meadowlark had put in place, Ritter said.

Meadowlark met the state requirements by submitting the required information within 180 days that the pipeline went into service, Ritter said. However, that information is not available to the public other than landowners, a stipulation that was approved by legislators.

The pipeline that ruptured is constructed of a composite material called Fiberspar LinePipe, the company says on a website to update the public about the spill, www.meadowlarkupdate.com.

The state currently has jurisdiction over about 20,000 miles of gathering pipelines, Ritter said.

Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources, has said he anticipates the state will have nearly 50,000 miles of such pipelines in the future.

Helms and Gov. Jack Dalrymple, chairman of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, were not available for comment Monday. The North Dakota Industrial Commission is set to discuss pipeline safety at its meeting on Wednesday, scheduled for 1 p.m. in the Governor’s Conference Room.

The North Dakota Public Service Commission also struggles to recruit and retain pipeline inspectors, Chairman Brian Kalk said Monday.

The PSC has two pipeline inspectors to oversee natural gas pipelines, but one position has been vacant for several months, Kalk said. For the past several years, the PSC has had a “revolving door” of pipeline inspectors who typically leave for better-paying industry jobs, he said.

“It’s not just a North Dakota problem. There’s not enough certified, qualified inspectors in the country,” Kalk said.

The PSC is now advertising a monthly salary of $5,000 to $8,000 for the inspector position and is considering retention bonuses, Kalk said. Even after increasing the monthly salary to up to $8,000, the PSC has not had any applicants, Kalk said.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is advertising a monthly salary of $3,400 to $4,400 for pipeline inspectors, plus a potential recruitment bonus for external candidates. The three vacant positions are in Williston, Minot and Dickinson.

N.D. workplace deaths examined in TV report

DJ Allred contemplates the explosion that tore apart this tanker in October 2014 and took the life of his best friend Dustin Payne, a Marine Corps veteran who worked in North Dakota’s oilfields. Josh Rushing / Fault Lines

WILLISTON, N.D. – Before North Dakota oil worker Dustin Payne died last fall, he sent text messages to his girlfriend about safety conditions on the worksite.

“I’m literally going to be welding something that’s full of oil. … Don’t (feel) comfortable welding this at all. Dangerous as (expletive).”

Payne, a 28-year-old Marine Corps veteran from Alabama, died from injuries he suffered last Oct. 3 when a tanker he was welding in Williston exploded.

An investigative report airing Monday on Al Jazeera America featuring interviews with his family and friends shows that Payne had voiced concerns to his employer about safety conditions, and a legal investigator interviewed by “Fault Lines” says the death could have been prevented.

Correspondent Josh Rushing and his team spent six months investigating working conditions in the Bakken, including traveling around the country to interview families of men who died in North Dakota and injured workers who are recovering.

Other findings in the episode, “Death on the Bakken Shale,” include:

– A North Dakota oil worker tells Rushing he has spent as many as 69 hours straight on a job site and has fallen asleep in a crane while operating it. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration does not regulate how many hours employees work.

– OSHA has nine full-time compliance officers assigned to the Bismarck area office, and some estimates show it would take decades for OSHA to inspect every workplace in North Dakota.

– OSHA fines for oil companies with safety violations are often not substantial enough to be punitive.

Payne’s death is still under investigation by OSHA, Scott Overson, assistant director of the Bismarck area OSHA office, said Friday in an interview with Forum News Service. Payne worked for Nabors Completion and Production Service, Overson said.

Payne’s family learned that he had been asked to weld on a tanker that had contained salt water, a byproduct of oil production that contains hydrocarbons, the “Fault Lines” report says.

“What happened to Dustin unfortunately was very avoidable,” Ross Rolshoven, investigator for Great Plains Claims, says in the episode. “The truck should have been put outside for 24 hours and checked for flammable gas.”

Nabors did not comment for the TV program, and a message seeking comment for Forum News Service was not returned Friday.

The recent report by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations that found North Dakota to have the highest fatality rate in the nation prompted the journalists to investigate the Bakken, Rushing said last week in an interview with Forum News Service.

Understanding the dangers of the working conditions in the Bakken required Rushing and his team to travel around the country to talk to family members and injured workers who are recovering.

“It really became this national story,” Rushing said. “The idea that these workers come from everywhere but there (North Dakota) is very important if the situation is ever to be changed.”

The program airs at 8 p.m. Central Monday, Jan. 12, on Al Jazeera America, which is Channel 158 on Midcontinent. More information is available at the show’s website.

Record numbers of births reported in Oil Patch in 2014

MINOT, N.D. – Hospitals in the three hub cities in North Dakota’s Oil Patch set records in 2014 for the number of babies born.

Trinity Health in Minot recorded 1,713 births in 2014, up 83 from the previous year. That set a record for Trinity for the second year in a row.

Sevda Raghib, women’s and children’s services director, said a few of the births were multiple births, so the number of babies born was actually higher.

In addition, Trinity had 265 admissions into its Newborn Intensive Care Unit, also a new record.

“This consistently busy pace has been the new normal as the city continues to grow,” Raghib said.

In Williston, Mercy Medical Center recorded 804 babies born in 2014. That’s an increase of 54 from the record Mercy set in 2013.

In Dickinson, CHI St. Joseph’s reported 611 births in 2014, an increase of 71 deliveries over 2013. Deb Bolin, director of obstetrics, said the Dickinson hospital has had a steady increase of deliveries each year since 2010.

Census estimates list the three cities as some of the fastest-growing communities of their size in the nation.