REGULATION: N.D. pipeline study sees flaws in some safety features
Mike Lee and Pamela King, E&E reporters
Published: Friday, December 4, 2015

A state-funded study recommends safety improvements for the network of pipelines that connect North Dakota's Bakken Shale oil field, but stops short of what landowners and environmentalists asked for earlier this year.

The North Dakota Legislature ordered the $1.5 million study in April, to determine if it's feasible to require leak-detection systems and other safety features on the Bakken's gathering lines -- the lightly regulated pipelines that connect individual well sites to the larger transportation network.

The final report, published Wednesday by the Energy and Environmental Research Center at University of North Dakota, called for more testing of new pipelines, better information sharing among companies and state regulators, better training of pipeline operators, and other steps.

But it said leak-detection technology isn't advanced enough, and other safety features such as automatic shutoff valves won't work correctly in the Bakken's rugged conditions or aren't cost-effective.

It's a setback for the Northwest Landowners Association, which represents farmers and ranchers in the Bakken. The group has been pushing state regulators and legislators for those safety features since 2013, hoping to reduce the number of spills and other accidents in the Bakken.

"We'll have to negotiate those things to get them into the rules," association Chairman Troy Coons said.

The landowners group has pushed for tougher standards on gathering lines since 2013, hoping to reduce the number of spills and other accidents in the Bakken.

Dick Anderson, a Republican state representative who served on the committee that authorized the study, said he understood the concerns about cost, but also wanted to ensure that landowners are protected from spills.

"I think we're still looking for a solution," he said in an interview.

The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, which will ultimately write any new pipeline regulations, declined to comment on the report until agency staff have a chance to fully review the document, a spokeswoman said.

The Bakken, a deep layer of shale that has to be broken up with millions of gallons of water and chemicals, has pushed North Dakota's oil production up almost tenfold to about 1.2 million barrels a day in the last decade.

The field already has about 10,000 wells, and 4,000 miles of gathering pipelines have been built in the last four years, according to data the EERC made public in September. The EERC estimates that another 36,000 miles could be built as the field is developed.

Like most oil-producing states, North Dakota historically has had little regulation on gathering lines. The larger transmission lines are subjected to more extensive oversight, either by the states or by the Department of Transportation.

There's been an increase in the number of spills, and some of the biggest ones have come from gathering lines. The number of spills in North Dakota jumped 42 percent from 2012 to 2013, and another 15 percent from 2013 to 2014. More of them went uncontained than in previous years -- 24 percent in 2014 compared with 20 percent in 2013 (EnergyWire, Sept. 29).

Three of the five biggest spills in the past 12 months have come from pipelines. In January, a wastewater pipeline outside of Williston leaked for days before it was caught. The state estimates that 3 million gallons of salty brine flowed across a field and into Blacktail Creek, eventually reaching the Little Muddy and Missouri rivers (Greenwire, Jan. 27).

Brine spills are a particular concern for farmers because the salt is harder to clean up than oil and can cause long-term soil damage.

A month after the Blacktail Creek spill, the North Dakota House of Representatives passed a bill calling for automatic shutoff valves and leak-detection equipment for gathering lines. The bill was later amended to remove those requirements but fund the study.

The EERC report said that existing leak-detection systems may not work on gathering lines. Unlike long-haul systems, which operate at a steady pressure for long periods, gathering pipelines tend to ebb and flow rapidly. Also, most leak-detection systems are designed for steel pipe, and virtually all of the 1,200 miles of brine-gathering pipe is made from plastic.

Safety recommendations

The report recommended some safety features that are already used on larger pipelines. Newly installed pipe could be filled with water and pressurized to test for leaks, and new systems could be built to allow testing with instruments called pigs that travel inside the line.

Citing an Alaska study from 1999, the EERC report says, "The best opportunities to mitigate pipeline accidents and subsequent leaks are through prevention measures such as aggressive controller training and strict enforcement of safety and maintenance programs."

EERC also recommended establishing a system that would streamline the process for reporting and analyzing spill data. Such a system would improve North Dakota regulators' ability to identify root causes of pipeline spills and to shape future regulations based on those findings, the report says.

The system also could be used to track the progress of spill remediation, the authors wrote.

As it stands, standards for recording spill information in North Dakota -- and other oil-producing states -- are nonexistent. Spill volumes are sometimes given in gallons, sometimes in barrels. Data on the type of material released are inconsistent. Duplicate entries abound.

North Dakota's spill data are skewed because of the state's low reporting threshold, the report says. Raising that floor could allow for a more apples-to-apples data comparison against states like Texas and New Mexico, which have 5-barrel thresholds, said Jay Almlie, principal engineer and lead of EERC's mid- and downstream oil and gas group.

"When all the other states have a threshold and we don't, naturally our statistics are going to look much worse," he said.

But EERC stops short of recommending that North Dakota's Department of Mineral Resources, which was a stakeholder in the report, raise its threshold.

"We need to let DMR do their job because they have insight into how that database is constructed and how they can effectively execute any additional regulation," Almlie said.

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