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North Dakota to Continue Focus on Abandoned Wellsites

Even as regulatory rollback continues at the federal level under the Trump administration, North Dakota state officials are pushing ahead to address the cleanup of abandoned oil/natural gas wellsites under a stepped-up effort mandated by state lawmakers.

A $5 million allocation for each two-year state budget cycle was approved by the North Dakota legislature this year as embodied by House Bill 1347, which Gov. Doug Burgum signed this month, to fund what the state designates as the "abandoned oil/gas well plugging site reclamation fund (AWPSRF)."

Noting that HB 1347 reflects the commitment of the state Industrial Commission (IC) and the legislature, Lynn Helms, who directs the oil/gas division in the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), said the latest funding will "advance projects aimed at finding ways to better remediate salt-contaminated soils as well as research on improving underground gathering pipelines."

A DMR spokesperson said that six legacy reclamation projects were completed and a soil study started during the past two years, funded by $1.5 million from the state under an earlier House bill, which also appropriated research funds. The research examined the best techniques for dealing with brine pond reclamation and two phases of underground gathering pipeline studies.

The latest AWPSRF reclamation funds will address five project areas:

  • Problems encountered with legacy reclamation performed before Aug. 1, 1983;
  • Research on brine ponds used before 1983 that still need reclamation;
  • Continued studies on the best approaches to brine pond reclamation;
  • A wellsite compaction study; and
  • A third phase of the ongoing underground gathering pipeline study.

The reclamation activity funding comes from a portion of the state's gross oil production tax, confiscated bonds, civil penalties, and fees paid to the oil/gas division.

HB 1347, signed by Burgum on April 12, will become law July 1. The legislation would appropriate monies that will be used to remediate at least four legacy sites over the next two years, including plugging old seismic shot holes and reclaiming old reserve pits, in addition to funding continued brine pond research. State officials are concerned about areas where the brine ponds have spread salt contamination to agricultural lands.

Energy and agricultural officials, both of which are represented on the IC, want to determine the best possible ways to remediate sites.

Brine ponds were used in early oil/gas development in North Dakota as a way to store saltwater, the DMR spokesperson said. They were outlawed in 1983. “Over time, salt from some of these abandoned ponds has spread into surrounding farmland, making the land unproductive for farming,” the spokesperson said.

This has involved tens -- not hundreds -- of acres of farmland, the spokesperson told NGI's Shale Daily.

In the latest appropriation, $500,000 is allocated to the state's Oil/Gas Research Council for the third phase of the study on underground gathering pipeline leak detection.

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