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North Dakota Officials Claim BLM Not Prepared for Regulating Oil/Gas Sector

With the increasingly real prospects for the U.S. Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issuing new rules for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and combating gas flaring on oil/natural gas operations on federal lands, officials in North Dakota on Wednesday said they are skeptical about the federal agency's ability to oversee industry operations.

One-third of North Dakota’s growing oil and natural gas production comes from the Fort Berthold Reservation land, state officials said earlier in May while adding that the BLM has agreed informally that the state's new anti-flaring rules would be enforced on the federally managed lands (see Shale Daily, May 15). The advent of federal regulation is magnified by the fact that a lot of the new major plays beyond North Dakota are found on federal regulated tribal lands, according to Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council (NDPC).

"Federal permitting processes are just not helpful at all," said Ness, asserting that the BLM is "chronically understaffed" as evidenced by the long time spans between inspections of wells on federal lands, compared to ones on state-regulated lands. "Burdensome regulations don't really help regulators."

Ness and others spoke at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference in Bismarck, ND.

Ness asked how often a given oil/gas well on federal lands is visited by a BLM inspector, and North Dakota's chief oil/gas regulator, Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR), responded that the time span was about every 10 years, during a news media briefing at the Williston conference.

"North Dakota takes great pride in the fact that we have the lowest number of wells/inspector of any state in our region," Helms said earlier in the energy conference. "We currently have 477 wells/inspector." DMR inspectors currently number 30, Helms told NGI.

Helms cited a national report, "Law and Order in the Oil/Gas Fields," done by a regional resource council, that concluded inspectors in other resource-rich states would have 10 (Colorado) to three (Montana) times more wells for each of its state inspectors.

"What stuck out was that the federal agencies did not have the capability to visit oil/gas or salt water wells more than once a year," Helms said. "The same report data shows that our [North Dakota] inspectors can get there five times a year."

Helms said the norm in North Dakota is that a single inspector sees a salt water well once a month, an oil/gas producing well every quarter, and a drilling rig one or two times every week. To accomplish this, he said, the DMR has had to hire a team of engineers, geologists and technicians.

In North Dakota, federal inspectors sees oil/gas wells only once every three years, Helms said. And in a state like Wyoming, he alleges, the federal inspectors only see a well on federal lands every 10 years.

Helms said there is an effort in some federal jurisdictions to delegate some of its authority to the states.

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