WATFORD CITY, N.D. – Rain could seriously hinder oil production and transportation in the state’s busiest oil county this weekend.
The McKenzie County Commission is prepared to prohibit trucks and other vehicles heavier than 20,000 pounds from traveling on gravel roads if significant rain falls today, said Chairman Ron Anderson.
“I’m sure there will be people up in arms, but we just can’t take it anymore,” Anderson said.
As of 8 a.m. today, roads remain open and officials are monitoring the weather. In Watford City, it was overcast but not raining shortly after 8.
Record-setting May rainfall exacerbated damage to the county’s gravel roads, estimated to cost $50 million, Anderson said.
The damage is not only expensive, but makes travel difficult for emergency responders, said Jerry Samuelson, McKenzie County emergency manager. One rut measured 17 inches deep, and that was after the road had been bladed, he said.
Some oil companies pulled trucks off the roads during the extremely wet weather, but gravel trucks and water haulers continued driving on the soft roads, Anderson said.
“They were pulling trucks down our roads,” he said.
McKenzie County has 74 active drilling rigs representing 40 percent of the state’s oil drilling activity.
A weight restriction of 20,000 pounds would essentially affect vehicles heavier than a pickup truck.
“At that level of road restrictions, then we can’t even move oil,” said Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources. “No oil, no water movements, anything like that.”
In McKenzie County, 70 percent of oil is transported by truck, according to the most recent figures.
“That would have a really serious short-term impact,” Helms said.
The other significant impact would be on hydraulic fracturing, which requires heavy equipment and trucks that haul water and sand.
The short-term impact on drilling rigs that are up and running would be less severe, Helms said.
One-fourth to one-half an inch of rain was possible late Friday and early today for McKenzie County, said Patrick Ayd, forecaster with the National Weather Service. As much as an inch of rain was possible in some localized areas, Ayd said.
May was a wet month for McKenzie County. Grassy Butte, in the southeast portion of the county, set a new record for May rainfall with 6.69 inches of rain, the National Weather Service said.
Sunny weather during the middle of last week helped to dry out the roads.
McKenzie County officials will monitor the weather and make a determination based on how much rain falls, Samuelson said.
“This is truly unprecedented,” he said.
The county should have taken this type of measure during the wet spring of 2011, Anderson said.
“It took us a year to dig back out of that one,” he said.
Overall, the wet weather is causing spring road restrictions to continue longer than usual, which is slowing down oil production in North Dakota. Typically the spring load restrictions for state highways are lifted around Mother’s Day, but they continue to be in place for Williams, Divide, Burke and northern McKenzie counties, Helms said.
That is preventing some drilling rigs from operating in North Dakota and contributes to a backlog of wells that are waiting for hydraulic fracturing crews, Helms said.
“We may not see our summer production surge until very late in the summer,” Helms said.