Lightning strikes can cause havoc at oilfield sites

WILLISTON, N.D. – A lightning strike at a saltwater disposal well took only an instant, but the mess it created cost about $100,000 to clean up.

The McKenzie County incident is one of five fires at North Dakota oilfield locations in May and June that is attributed to lightning, according to state regulators. Lightning also is believed to be the cause of a fire near Keene on Monday.

The fires caused spills of oil and saltwater ranging from less than 1 barrel to about 400 barrels, reports from the Oil and Gas Division of the North Dakota Industrial Commission say.

Five of the fires occurred at saltwater disposal wells and one occurred at an oil well. All of the spills were contained on the oilfield location, but some were as close as 200 feet from a water well or a half mile from a residence.

“They do appear small, but no spill is good news,” said Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources. “But it is encouraging that they stayed to the location, that’s the best possible outcome. If a spill is going to happen, we would much rather them be from something like lightning, rather than human error.”

A farmer saw lightning directly strike a saltwater disposal well facility near Keene owned by Murex Petroleum Corp. on June 14, said Don Kessel, the company’s senior vice president.

The cost to reinstall four tanks and clean up the mess is estimated at about $100,000, Kessel said. The fire caused a release of 380 barrels of saltwater and 20 barrels of oil, the spill report shows.

Murex Petroleum owns thousands of tanks and this was the second time a site was struck by lightning in the history of the company, Kessel said.

The other incident, which happened in the Williston Basin years ago, prompted Murex to position buildings, pumps and tanks farther away from each other so if lightning strikes, it would be less likely to destroy the entire facility, Kessel said.

Murex makes sure its tanks are grounded, but company officials haven’t found another means of overhead protection that is proven to be effective, Kessel said.

Fiberglass tanks tend to have more issues with lightning than steel tanks, but the risk of corrosion with steel tanks outweighs the risk of a lightning strike, Kessel said.

In the big picture of the oil and gas industry, protecting sites from lightning strikes is something companies want to do to protect people and assets, but it doesn’t make sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on engineering for something that rarely happens, Kessel said.

“It just doesn’t statically happen that often,” he said.

Daryl Ritchison, meteorologist with WDAY in Fargo, said some thunderstorms can have thousands to as many as 10,000 lightning strikes.

Western North Dakota is part of a region that tends to have more lightning than the eastern side of the state, Ritchison said.

“The high plains just get a little bit more hail, therefore those storms have a little bit more lightning associated with them,” Ritchison said.

Kessel said considering how many thunderstorms have hit North Dakota this season, he doesn’t think the number of lightning-related fires is extraordinary.

Jerry Samuelson, emergency manager in McKenzie County, which has had four of the six lightning-related fires, said he doesn’t hear about the incidents unless they get specifically reported to him.

Samuelson said he’s in favor of preventive measures, but doesn’t consider it a huge issue for the county.

In 2012, no saltwater disposal well fires were attributed to lightning in reports filed to the Oil and Gas Division, said Ritter, who reviewed the reports.

Bruce Kaiser, president of a company that sells lightning and static protection, said the lightning-related fires happen more often than people think because not all lightning damage is reported.

Kaiser, president of Lightning Master, based in Clearwater, Fla., said more fires are caused by lightning that strikes nearby rather than direct strikes.

Lightning damage to oilfield locations most often occurs at production tanks and saltwater disposal facilities, which usually are unattended, so they don’t result in injuries, Kaiser said. But the incidents can cause loss of production and are costly to repair and clean up, he said.

In North Dakota, the Oil and Gas Division does not have specific lightning protection requirements, Ritter said.

The American Petroleum Institute has standards and recommended practices for companies to follow related to preventing ignitions caused by lightning, static and stray currents. The national organization also has recommended practices for lightning protection for hydrocarbon storage tanks.

Kaiser, who also serves on a committee with the American Petroleum Institute that develops the best practices, said the standards address static and lightning protection, but do not directly address production tanks and saltwater disposal wells.

“What we need to do is come up with a standard just for those tanks,” Kaiser said.

Lightning Master developed a system about five years ago to address lightning and static protection. The system involves bonding and grounding, installing a special type of lightning rod on the tank and a product inside the tank to remove static, Kaiser said.

Although Kaiser says the system has not failed when it’s been installed correctly, nothing can completely eliminate the problem.

“No matter what you do, there’s always a chance you’re going to get hit by lightning,” Kaiser said.

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