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More than 350 oil wells may soon be plugged and reclaimed

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North Dakota’s top oil and gas experts came together again on Wednesday for a continued discussion about how to make about 6,200 wells still idle, due in large part to the coronavirus, profitable once again.

Some say it’s time to take care of the land these wells are sitting on, and others say it’s time to put people back to work.

“I think what is the blessing of this moment is that we have federal funds to have a very substantial beginning of a task that’s been overdue,” shared Fintan Dooley, with the Salt Contaminated Land & Water Council.

He’s talking about reclamation.

“In several decades of doing this, I haven’t seen this much, I would say, enthusiasm, from a standpoint of they need the assistance. They need the help,” added Ron Ness, President of the North Dakota Petroleum Council.

Oil and Gas experts heard testimony from about 35 oil operators, small well owners, soil scientists and landowners.

This comes after the Department of Mineral Resources, led by Lynn Helms, published a list of 368 abandoned and orphaned wells, that the Industrial Commission will consider spending $33-million in CARES Act money to plug up for good.

The money was approved in May to plug and reclaim these wells that Helms say are no longer profitable, even if brought back into production.

“Roughly 550 service company employees are going to be put to work as their PPP expires. And probably 600 people put to work doing the reclamation, which is the second phase of this. So all-in-all, well over 1,000 jobs are going to be created,” the Dept. of Mineral Resources Director explained.

Some testimony was called in by oil operating executives, who asked that the state not confiscate their wells.

Other callers were frustrated landowners, like Scott and Tim Sundhagen, who own a family farm in Tioga. They say for years, Cobra Oil and Gas has been damaging their crops with leaks from abandoned wells.

“Nobody, actually including the state, we feel is taking this seriously. The state has the ability and the teat, if they want to, to step in and help us get that cleaned up,” Tim Sundhagen said.

“We’ve heard a lot from people about taking wells off of the list, but you heard the one lady who said, ‘Please take the well that you listed and two more,'” Helms said.

Ultimately, the state’s plan is to put laid-off oil and gas workers back to work as early as the third week of July to plug wells, and by August, they’ll be reclaiming the land to as close to its natural state as possible.

Helms believes about 350 to 400 wells will end up meeting this fate.

“Under the statute, if that well has been in abandoned status for one year, legally, it’s subject to confiscation,” he added.

The downside for those fighting to get their wells back into production is, once the state confiscates the well, they own it, including all equipment and salable oil from there on out.

Between now and next week, the Department of Mineral Resources will come up with a final list of wells, and on June 19, it will be presented to the Industrial Commission, which will make the final call.

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