Oil Spills and North Dakota, is the state more prepared?


About 1 million barrels of oil are produced in North Dakota every day.

But what happens when that oil spills? And can most of those oil spills be avoided?

Ray Strickland digs deep into the spills of western North Dakota. and what’s being done to limit them.

It’s not a question of if, but a question of when. Oil spills are unavoidable as a result of oil production. And it’s a reality North Dakotans have to live with.

Take the spill that happened last year north of Belfield. True Companies, the owner and operator of the Belle Fourche Pipeline, at first glance, thought the pipeline spilled around 4,000 barrels. But after the company took a closer look months later, that number rose to more than 12,000 barrels. The second largest spill in state history.

“Since that time, we were able to go back and now that we have hard data we can work with, we can go back and look at the date figure out how much actually did spill,” said Wendy Owen, True Companies Spokesperson.

The cause of the spill is because of earth movement, True Companies says. But officials say, by all indications, the company should have been able to limit the amount that spilled. Oil was leaking for almost a week before it was discovered.

“Yes, should they have caught it sooner, yes,” Bill Suess, spill investigation program manager at the state health department, said.

Lynn Helms of the Department of Mineral Resources says spills can often be attributed to a lack of oversight…other times, it’s human error

“Somebody was in a hurry and didn’t do it right the first time,” Helms said.

The DMR started to regulate gathering pipelines in 2013. Before then they went largely unregulated.

“There was a regulatory gap on, in particular, produced water pipelines. There was zero regulation,” Helms said. 

A new pipeline oversight program is set to regulate pipeline construction. It will look to improve efficiency. Owen says the sight of the Belle Fourche pipeline spill is 90 percent cleaned up. The State Health Department has no timetable on what the company’s penalty will be and will have to wait until the process is over.

As the rate of drilling increases, so does the rate of spills. In 2010, there were 330 oil spills. In 2014 that number skyrocketed to 1160, according to a study done by the Energy and Environmental Research Center.

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