Under pressure: Increasing number of blowouts a concern for state

WILLISTON, N.D. – Well control incidents – or blowouts – are increasing in the Bakken, prompting regulators to take action.

North Dakota has had 23 well control incidents in the past year, according to the Department of Mineral Resources.

“That’s up significantly,” said Lynn Helms, director of the department.

An uncontrolled well, or a blowout, is the highest-risk failure in the oil and gas business, Helms said. A blowout may be an uncontrolled flow of oil, gas, saltwater or a mixture of these.

“The fluids flowing out of the well can escape and they’re often flammable, so you’re dealing with pressure and flammable fluids,” Helms said. “So it’s not just an environmental hazard, but also a health and human safety issue.”

Eighteen of the 23 recent incidents resulted in fewer than 10 barrels of fluid released and the spills were contained on location, Helms said.

But five incidents were blowouts involving significant volumes and pressures, each spewing 600 barrels to more than 2,000 barrels of oil and saltwater.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is pursuing administrative action in two of those major blowouts and continues to investigate the three others, Helms said.

The commission is seeking $379,025 in penalties from Slawson Exploration, the company that operated a well near the Van Hook Arm of Lake Sakakawea that had oil, gas and saltwater flowing from it for three days last December before operators regained control.

A spill report from the commission says the blowout resulted in the release of 800 barrels of oil and 400 barrels of saltwater.

In addition, Slawson is accused in the administrative complaint of failing to report the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing within 60 days to the FracFocus website.

A blowout later that same month in McKenzie County prompted the North Dakota Industrial Commission to seek $105,380 fines from Newfield Production Co.

That blowout continued for four days and resulted in the release of 1,399 barrels of oil, 742 barrels of saltwater and 2.2 million cubic feet of natural gas, documents from the commission say.

In each of those cases, the uncontrolled release of pressure occurred when workers were removing hydraulic fracturing material from the wellbore in order to restore the well to producing status, the administrative complaints say.

The Industrial Commission has proposed a settlement offer to each party and the companies have submitted counter-offers, Helms said. Neither case has reached a settlement.

“Those are large penalties and considered very serious violations,” Helms said.

Investigation continues into a an Aug. 14, 2012, blowout in Williams County at a well operated by Zavanna and an Aug. 21, 2012, blowout in Williams County at a well operated by Oasis Petroleum, Helms said.

The Aug. 14 incident last year also resulted in a worker’s death after he was struck by a pickup driven by another worker who was driving away from the blowout.

Investigators are also looking into a recent Continental Resources blowout at a well in Billings County, Helms said. However, the well is on confidential status so details about the incident are not available from the Department of Mineral Resources.

After the two significant blowouts last December, regulators approached the North Dakota Petroleum Council with concerns that some changes may need to be made to the state’s rules on well control, Helms said.

“We think our rule is adequate, but it may not be really well understood,” Helms said.

Industry representatives have formed a committee to develop best practices, Helms said. The committee will report back to Helms’ department and the input may lead to rule changes. In some case, more training or education may be required, Helms said.

“It looked like in a significant number of these cases, people didn’t have the appropriately sized or fitted equipment on the well for the operation that they were doing,” Helms said.

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