Panel delays action on ND oil production rules

By Dale Wetzel

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 20 2011 6:55 p.m. MST

North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem listens to a presentation at a state Industrial Commission meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011, in the governor's conference room in the North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck, N.D. The commission on Tuesday delayed action on new regulations on the state's oil and gas industry that are intended to cut down on the dumping of liquid wastes into open pits.

Dale Wetzel, Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. — New rules to restrict oil waste disposal were delayed Tuesday when Gov. Jack Dalrymple said the regulations were too vague about whether some producers would be allowed to continue dumping in open pits.

The state Department of Mineral Resources had proposed rules that would mostly prohibit an oil industry practice of digging pits the size of swimming pools to temporarily dump waste from oil drilling.

Under the proposed rules, salt water, drilling lubricants and other liquid wastes from wells drilled to depths of more than 5,000 feet would have to be stored in tanks, rather than dumped in reserve pits.

Open pits could still be used for waste from wells shallower than 5,000 feet, and to dispose of rock cuttings and other solid waste from deeper wells.

Lynn Helms, director of the mineral resources agency, said most newly drilled North Dakota oil wells are deeper than 5,000 feet.

The exemption from shallower wells was proposed because their waste is usually less noxious, he said. It normally includes fresh water, rather than the brine that is a common waste product from deeper wells, he said.

The proposed rules say all open waste pits must eventually be filled in and reclaimed.

The state Industrial Commission, which regulates North Dakota's oil and gas industry, delayed action on the proposed rules Tuesday after Dalrymple told Helms they did not provide enough regulatory guidance to oil producers.

The proposed rules allowed oil producers to ask Helms and the Industrial Commission for permission to use pits for disposing of wastes from deeper wells.

"For everybody drilling below 5,000 feet, they still don't know where they are on that. They really can't assume anything," Dalrymple said to Helms. "You may, in your mind, have a clear idea of where you're going with this, but how are we going to get that same clarity if it can't even be reduced to words?"

Helms said afterward the proposed exemption for wells deeper than 5,000 feet would have to be "refined."

"They want some more restrictive language there to define under what circumstances can you (ask for an exemption)," Helms said.

The Industrial Commission will take up the issue again in mid-January. Dalrymple is chairman of the commission, which regulates North Dakota's oil and gas industry. Its other members are Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.

The rules also require oil companies to disclose chemicals they use for hydraulic fracturing, a process during which water, chemicals and grit are pumped underground to break up shale rock and allow the oil to flow.

They say companies must list chemicals in their "fracking" fluid on a website that is accessible to the public. The components of fluids used for individual oil wells will be listed, Helms said.

The oil industry's waste disposal pits have come under scrutiny after heavy water runoff from melting snow last spring caused some to overflow, polluting nearby farmland.

Some oil companies also have been charged under a federal law that protects migratory birds after some ducks and other birds were discovered dead in waste pits. The birds had apparently mistaken the pits for a good landing spot.

Some oil companies, in comments filed about the proposed rules, said the ban on waste pits for deeper wells would drive up drilling costs by $50,000 to $400,000 per well, and make some exploration projects uneconomical.

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