WILLISTON, N.D. – A YouTube video of a man lighting tap water on fire from North Dakota’s Oil Patch is generating a lot of online discussion, but a state geological study shows the phenomenon can be found all over the state.
The video posted by Jacob Haughney shows him holding a cigarette lighter to ignite water coming from a bathroom sink. He says in the video he works in the oilfields of North Dakota.
“First time I did it, it was a huge fireball, took up the entire sink. So that’s why I’m a little jumpy doing it. I don’t want to blow up the bathroom here,” Haughney says in the video that had about 350,000 views as of Monday afternoon.
In an interview Monday, Haughney said he took the video in northwest North Dakota, but declined to be more specific. Haughney said he has no idea what caused the water to catch fire and was surprised the video got so much attention.
Haughney does not speculate in the video about what causes the water to catch fire, but several people commenting link it to hydraulic fracturing or oil development.
Research shows, however, that occurrences of shallow gas – or methane – are naturally occurring and have been reported for more than 100 years all around North Dakota, said Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources.
The North Dakota Geological Survey, a division of the Department of Mineral Resources, has detected methane in water wells in virtually every North Dakota county, including areas that have never had oil and gas development.
The researchers tested 4,325 State Water Commission monitoring wells in every county except Sioux County and detected methane in 20 percent of the wells. They also tested more than 100 private water wells with historical reports of gas and detected methane in 25.
Tioga oilfield geologist Kathy Neset, who also is a farmer and rancher who drinks water from a well in the heart of North Dakota oil country, said she thinks it’s important to understand that the gas occurs naturally in surface water and has nothing to do with oil development.
“People have known about this just as they did back in Pennsylvania and other areas of the country where there is naturally occurring methane,” Neset said.
In North Dakota, most municipal water wells are 1,500 to 1,800 feet below ground and hydraulic fracturing occurs 10,000 to 11,000 feet below ground, Neset said.
Neset monitors the water from her well and recommends that others do the same.
“I’m very comfortable that my water is protected and secure,” Neset said.
There are no known health effects of methane in drinking water, and there are no federal or state standards for methane in drinking water, said Wayne Kern, with the North Dakota Department of Health Environmental Health Section.
The main health and safety concern related to methane is a danger of explosion if the gas builds up in a home or confined space, Kern said.
Another danger is the methane could displace oxygen in a confined space and become an asphyxiant, Kern said.
Both the Health Department and the Geological Survey said they could do more research into the YouTube video if they had more information or if Haughney came forward with details about the location.
The Geological Survey seeks anecdotes from the public about occurrences of methane gas. One woman from eastern North Dakota reported that she was doing laundry and the washing machine blew up after she closed the lid, Ritter said.
The Geological Survey has a photo from 1920 of a storage tank in Edgeley that was used to collect the gas from an artesian well in the area and use it to light a hotel.
“We encourage people to tell us of methane occurring in their water,” Ritter said.
More information about the Geological Survey’s assessment can be found here.