WILLISTON, N.D.—For most of the years since wildcatters began tapping the prairies here for oil, energy companies have existed peacefully with the farmers and ranchers who still dominate the state’s economy.
But now a dispute has broken out between the two groups over pipeline spills, not of oil but of salty wastewater. The latest such leak came last week, when some 220,000 gallons of brine leaked on an Indian reservation. In particular, agricultural interests are frustrated that oil drillers and pipeline companies haven’t agreed to use technology that farmers say could quickly detect brine leaks.
“There’s probably nothing more toxic to land than salt water,” said Troy Coons, a farmer and chairman of the Northwest Landowners Association, an agriculture group. Farmers don’t want to stop oil production, he says, noting that many receive payments for wells on their land, but want tighter rules to prevent spills.
Briny wastewater is a byproduct of oil production, surging up from underground with the crude and natural gas. Energy companies separate it from the petroleum products and then must dispose of it, usually by pushing it down special wells drilled for that purpose.
Getting the billions of gallons of brine to these special wells often involves small pipelines. Traversing thousands of miles of rough and remote areas, sometimes under a blanket of snow, some of these pipelines have been plagued by leaks.
Despite a recent drop in drilling activity due to lower oil prices, at least 11 brine spills have been detected so far this year in western North Dakota. That includes an Oasis Petroleum Inc. pipeline leak earlier this month that state officials say involved some 630,000 gallons of brine spilled on grazing land into a tributary of a lake. But the catalyst for agricultural opposition was a record leak discovered in January that had allowed nearly three million gallons to spill here before it was discovered.
The six-month-old pipeline involved had a monitoring system to detect leaks, but nobody turned it on amid a boom-fueled rush to lay more pipe, according to both state officials and an executive with the company that owns the line, Summit Midstream Partners LLC of the Woodlands, Texas.
“We have laid so much pipe and had turned on so many sites that we just hadn’t gotten to that yet,” said John Millar, a vice president at Summit in charge of developing and managing pipeline.
That spill didn’t pose a threat to public health or drinking water, but state officials say it killed vegetation and may have affected fish and wildlife. Rick Sorenson, a cattle rancher who leases land nearby, said he worries about his cows eating brine-contaminated grass.
The energy industry has long argued that pipeline-monitoring systems aren’t foolproof and opposed legislation that would require their use. The Republican-controlled legislature, which has attempted to balance the concerns of energy producers and landowners, so far has resisted efforts to mandate specific technology such as flow meters on smaller pipelines.
“Industry always gets concerned about more regulation,” said State Sen. Kelly Armstrong, a Republican who represents a district near Dickinson, also in western North Dakota. Adding specific technology to the state’s regulatory code “means that’s what you have to use and we don’t want to be limited to those things,” he said.
Two years ago, North Dakota legislators abandoned an initiative that would have mandated the use of pipeline monitoring systems. Instead, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which both regulates and promotes the energy industry, was left in charge of overseeing the rapid spread of small pipelines.
The state began requiring companies to report data on the construction and location of small pipelines in April 2014. Last July, regulators received funding to hire the first state pipeline inspectors, but didn’t fill the jobs until earlier this year—after the Summit pipeline had leaked.
Public outrage over the Summit spill prodded the legislature to pass a bill to strengthen reporting and monitoring rules, which Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed on April 20. The new law requires plans for leak detection and monitoring, third-party inspections and increased disclosure of engineering plans.
It also obligates the Industrial Commission to come up with new pipeline-safety rules. That policy will be based on conclusions of a $1.5 million technology-focused study to be completed by a University of North Dakota research center.
“With this bill’s passage, North Dakota will require significantly more from pipeline builders and operators,” Gov. Dalrymple said.
The new regulations will be burdensome, said Alexis Brinkman-Baxley, government-affairs manager at the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry lobby. But, she added, “We’re pleased the rules will be based on research and sound science.”
Critics say the new law doesn’t go far enough, and point out that violators will be subject to fines limited to $12,500 a day. North Dakota levied a $82,500 fine on the company responsible for a million-gallon brine spill in 2006, but suspended collection until the cleanup of the affected site is finished.
The most recent leak on the Fort Berthold Reservation involved a pipeline installed in 2010 and operated by Crestwood Midstream Partners LP, which also owned a brine pipe that spilled more than a million gallons on the same reservation last July. “There are substantial problems with that [pipeline] system,” said North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms.
Mr. Helms said investigators are looking into the material those pipelines are made of and whether that is “suitable for North Dakota.”
Brine is too corrosive to ship long distances using metallic pipelines, so typically wastewater pipes are made from plastics, and often are reinforced on the outside by other materials such as fiberglass or steel. It is unclear what the Crestwood pipelines were made of, but the pipe involved in the Summit leak was made by Fiberspar Corp., a division of Houston, Texas-based National Oilwell Varco Inc. specializing in fiberglass-reinforced pipe.
Representatives for Fiberspar were unavailable for comment.
Some officials here say that unless the state cracks down on brine spills, farmers may take steps that would crimp the energy industry. “The farmers are the ones who know best about what’s happening to their land and they say things aren’t being done right,” said Williston Mayor Howard Klug. “They no longer want to give right-of-way permission to pipeline companies to cross their land because of what’s happened.”