BISMARCK – As oil activity increases in western North Dakota, concerns about the environment and water protection are growing as well.
State regulators take concerns about water quality in the Oil Patch “very seriously” and have safeguards in place to protect potable water, the assistant director of the state Department of Mineral Resources said.
The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a national study to identify potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources.
Killdeer is one of the case study sites.
But state officials insist the state “has proven more than capable” of regulating the oil and gas industry and ensuring drilling and fracturing operations “are conducted in an environmentally sound manner.”
“We believe United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation of any hydraulic fracturing processes is unnecessary, especially in North Dakota because of our own statutes, rules and programs that are already in place to regulate the full life of hydraulic fracturing,” the state Industrial Commission said in a November letter to the federal Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water.
Gov. Jack Dalrymple, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring serve on the commission and signed the letter.
The North Dakota Health Department does not see or anticipate the potential problems with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that have been reported in other states, said Dennis Fewless, director of the Division of Water Quality.
Fracking is a technique long used by the oil and gas industry to free oil and gas from rock.
“We’ve got deeper formations,” he said. “I think our Oil and Gas Division does a very good job of controlling and regulating and monitoring the drilling and fracking practices in the state.”
Fracturing fluids – water, sand and chemicals – are injected as much as two miles below the ground, said Monte Besler, a Williston-based hydrologic fracturing consultant.
In between that and fresh water aquifers near the surface is “a lot of geological protection,” he said.
The state also has casing (pipe) and concrete regulations that oil companies must follow so water sources are protected during fracking, said Bruce Hicks, assistant director of the state Department of Mineral Resources.
The department is not concerned about contamination from the actual act of fracking, he said. Mechanical problems and casing failure could cause contamination, but the State Industrial Commission has approved rules that require testing to ensure casing can handle the pressure, he said.
“We’ve had no instances where we’ve ever had a fracture into any potable waters in the state,” Hicks said.
Bismarck attorney Derrick Braaten said his office gets calls with concerns about contaminants from the oil industry making their way into the water system.
His practice focus includes oil and gas law for landowners and mineral owners, as well as environmental law.
“It’s really difficult to establish that there has been water contamination,” he said. “It’s very easy for the companies to stand back and say, ‘There’s no problem with water contamination here.
You can’t prove it was us.’ ”
Hicks said there could be many reasons for well contamination that aren’t oil and gas related.
“We had huge amounts of snowfall and runoff and rain, so there’s a lot of moisture in the ground, and it could be moving contaminants that are already in the system from livestock or whatever into it,” he said.
He advised people with concerns to have testing done.
“If it is from some kind of oil and gas activity, we want to know about that, too,” he said.
The Health Department has received calls from people concerned about their water quality, but it hasn’t found a situation where there is a direct connection between the wells in question and oil activity, Fewless said.
There’s always debate about what the water quality was before oil activity moved in, he said, so he recommends people with concerns obtain a water sample and get it analyzed to establish a baseline.
“So, if you have any questions as to some activity that has degraded the quality of your well, then you’ve got hard data to negotiate with,” he said. “If you don’t have any of that upfront, then it’s all speculation as to: Has the quality changed from activity in your area?”
Southwestern District Health Unit in Dickinson has received calls to collect water samples for testing, said Kevin Pavlish, head of environmental health.
The health unit works with the state Health Department, which provides the collection containers and runs tests on the samples, he said.
“The intent is not necessarily to show that there’s any current contamination but to get baseline information about the chemical quality of those wells, so at some point in time down the road, if the quality does change, it might indicate that change was caused by something in the area,” Pavlish said.
Pavlish doesn’t get a lot of requests for testing, which he attributes partly to the cost. A routine chemical test used to be $20 years ago but is now more than $100, he said.
In addition, oil activity has been in the area long enough that collecting water samples in some areas now wouldn’t provide a baseline to note any potential difference pre- and post-oil activity.
However, some people in Dunn, Stark, Golden Valley and Billings counties who want to make comparisons are in luck.
In the 1980s, county water resource boards received funding to do well registrations, and chemical analysis tests were done on a number of wells, Pavlish said. The health unit has these files and, therefore, some baseline information already.
The Health Department has recently hired three staffers to work full time on oil field activities as environmental scientists or engineers, Fewless said.
Previously, there was one full-time employee who received part-time help.
When there are issues like tanker rollovers or pipeline breaks, these employees work to ensure releases are contained and cleaned up, he said. Once the new employees are in the field, the department will determine if the extra help is enough, he said.
“If it’s not, we’re going to have to reprioritize and maybe pull people off of other areas and focus on this,” he said. “You have to set your priorities in this day and age of limited budgets. Right now, this is our highest priority that we need to address.”
Spills can’t be eliminated in any industry, and the Health Department has had “very good” cooperation with the oil industry, Fewless said.
“Once they do have a spill, they are very proactive to clean it up and do it to our satisfaction,” he said. “That has been a good thing.”
North Dakota is ahead of the curve nationally as far as states that require fracking information to be posted on fracfocus.org, a chemical disclosure registry, said Mike Paque, executive director of the Ground Water Protection Council in Oklahoma City.
The State Industrial Commission approved this rule last month. Visitors to the site can look up fracking reports for specific wells and see the chemicals used.
Some oil companies doing business in North Dakota already voluntarily post this information. The mandatory requirement is expected to take effect April 1. Companies will need to post their reports on the website within 60 days of pumping.
Donald Nelson of Keene, spokesman for the Dakota Resource Council, called the required disclosure “a step in the right direction.”
If people are going to test for fracking fluid contamination, they need to know what to test for, he said.
FracFocus is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. The website includes information on hydraulic fracturing, chemicals used and groundwater protection.
The EPA is expected to release an initial report from its study of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water resources by the end of this year, with a final report released in 2014.
Teri Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.