Report highlights need for well inspections

WILLISTON, N.D. – A report released Tuesday criticizes state and federal agencies for falling behind with regulating oil and gas activity, but says North Dakota is doing better than other western states.

The “Law and Order in the Oil and Gas Fields” report by the Western Organization of Resource Councils and the Dakota Resource Council calls for more inspectors to keep up with expanding oil development.

Donald Nelson, a Keene-area rancher and member of the resource councils, said even though North Dakota compares favorably to other states in the study, which were Montana, Wyoming Colorado and New Mexico, the number of new oil wells is growing at a faster rate than the number of regulators.

“We want to be able to rely on the Oil and Gas Division to protect our land and water, but they can’t do that unless they slow down and staff up, Nelson said. “It’s time to get some more cops on the beat.”

Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources, said he agrees, which is why he’s requesting a 30 percent staff increase for his department during this legislative session.

Of the 23 new positions Helms is asking for, 13 would be new inspectors.

The report suggests that state and federal agencies inspect every well once a year, but Helms said North Dakota far exceeds that.

“We think we’re a world leader in this area,” Helms said.

The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources aims to:

– Inspect every drilling rig one to two times per week.

– Inspect every salt water injection well every month.

– Inspect every producing well four times per year.

Helms said his department is keeping up with the rig inspections and injection well inspections, but producing well inspections have fallen to twice a year. The staff increase request would allow the department to meet those goals, Helms said.

The report showed that the number of active wells per inspector has been steadily increasing in North Dakota and was 540 in 2011. However, other states had much higher numbers, ranging from Montana with 1,573 wells per inspector to Colorado with 5,204 wells per inspector.

The report shows that North Dakota conducted fewer well inspections in 2011 compared with previous years at a time when oil activity was expanding in the state.

The number of inspections for 2011 was 31,159, compared with 36,241 the previous year. Helms said the decrease is because inspectors focused on inspecting drilling rigs, which takes much longer than inspecting producing wells.

In 2012, additional staff members were added and the number of inspections conducted grew to 42,626, Helms said. The report did not cover 2012.

The report also criticized the Bureau of Land Management, which it said inspects wells once every 2.3 years on average in North Dakota and once every 4.8 years nationwide.

James Albano, chief of the Branch of Fluid Minerals for the BLM, said in a statement the agency has made great strides to tackle the huge workload from the Bakken.

In addition, the report calls for state and federal agencies to assess greater penalties for violations.

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