Crude spill has state official wanting more pipeline oversight

This Sept. 30, 2013, photo shows smoke from the 750 barrels of oil that Tesoro Logistics burned after the initial discovery of a pipeline break near Tioga, N.D. Further investigation revealed that 20,600 barrels had leaked. Photo courtesy Renae VanBerkom Evensvold

TIOGA, N.D. – A pipeline break that spilled 20,600 barrels of oil near here is prompting one state regulator to investigate if North Dakota should have more jurisdiction over crude oil pipelines.

Brian Kalk, chairman of the North Dakota Public Service Commission, said the agency he leads has the ability to inspect natural gas pipelines, but its authority is limited when it comes to crude oil lines after the commission approves them.

Crude oil pipelines, such as the Tesoro Logistics line that leaked and saturated 7.3 acres of a wheat field with Bakken crude, are monitored by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Kalk said he has a lot of questions about whether the 20-year-old pipeline was maintained and how well the federal agency monitored it.

“If you’re doing your maintenance properly, this shouldn’t have happened,” said Kalk, who said pipelines such as the 6-inch steel transmission line in question can have a 50-year lifespan.

North Dakota had 17,540 miles of underground crude oil and natural gas pipelines at the end of 2012, including both major pipelines and smaller gathering lines, according to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.

The state added 2,470 miles of oil and natural gas pipelines in 2012, or the distance from Los Angeles to New York City. That pace of development is expected to continue, said Justin Kringstad, director of the Pipeline Authority.

To keep up with the growth, the Public Service Commission recently added another inspector to monitor the natural gas pipelines, Kalk said.

But Kalk said he’s not sure how many inspectors the federal agency has and how often they do spot inspections.

He plans to talk to someone from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on Monday, but said it’s been difficult to find anyone from the agency to take a phone call during the government shutdown.

While the federal agency oversees crude oil pipelines in most states, Kalk said he learned Friday that Minnesota pursued some more authority over some oil pipelines. Kalk said he plans to look into whether North Dakota should do the same.

“We’re just sitting back waiting for another agency to do the investigation. We maybe should have a larger role in this,” Kalk said. “Who best to manage the state than us?”

Regardless of whether North Dakota gains more authority, Kalk said this incident will prompt him to ask a lot more questions during hearings the commission holds on proposed pipelines.

For example, Kalk said he has questions about this pipeline’s monitoring system that he said should have detected a change in pressure from such a significant leak.

“I want to see why it didn’t work and how that might relate to our future siting cases,” Kalk said.

A Tesoro Logistics spokeswoman said Friday the pipeline is routinely inspected and the most recent inspection occurred in September.

Tesoro Logistics said in addition to a remote monitoring system, the company conducts aerial inspections of the pipeline on a weekly basis.

On Friday, Dickinson pilot Chip Ford of Western Edge Aviation said aerial inspections of the pipeline that leaked have been performed consistently every week by either him or another pilot.

Ford, who has been flying pipelines for four years, said the most recent inspections were Wednesday and Oct. 5, which were after the leak had been discovered by the landowner on Sept. 29.

Ford didn’t have dates of September inspections readily available, but said the pilots do not go longer than seven days without flying it.

“We report everything that we see that looks out of the norm. If we could be up there every day, we would,” Ford said. “But things like this happen and we try to catch them and sometimes we can’t.”

Meanwhile, landowners also are calling for the state to have a more active role in regulating pipelines.

“I think the state needs to develop guidelines for the safe construction and operation and maintenance of these lines,” said Myron Hanson, president of the Northwest Landowners Association.

The Dakota Resource Council issued a statement Friday calling for more regulations that would protect landowners.

“At the very least, this latest spill calls for an open and honest public discussion of how our state is handling oil development,” the group said.

Cleanup at the site continued Friday and North Dakota Department of Health staff planned to be on location.

Kringstad, of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, said as the Bakken continues to develop, the state is going to continue to have a significant need for new pipelines to handle crude oil, natural gas and saltwater that is a byproduct of oil production.

“It’s important to take incidents that occur and learn from them so as we continue to expand our infrastructure in North Dakota, we can make sure it’s operated as safely as possible,” Kringstad said.

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