Farmers and ranchers in the Bakken have had an uneasy peace with the oil industry since the fracking boom started. Many receive royalty payments based on their ownership of the minerals under their land, and so they have been relatively tolerant of the problems related to drilling.
But a problem has arisen that has brought farmers and ranchers into direct conflict with the oil industry. It is an issue that we should be aware of along the Beartooth Front, because it speaks directly to the need for local regulation to protect Montana communities.
According to the Wall Street Journal (subscription required), the problem is salt water brine leaking from pipelines. There have been at least eleven such spills of this “produced water” on the North Dakota side of the Bakken in 2015 alone, including:
- A spill in January that allowed nearly three million gallons to spill near Black Tail Creek north of Williston before it was discovered
- An Oasis Petroleum Inc. pipeline leak earlier this month that state officials say involved some 630,000 gallons of brine spilled on grazing land into a tributary of a lake
- A spill last week that caused 220,000 gallons of brine to leak onto the Fort Berthold reservation
“There’s probably nothing more toxic to land than salt water,” said Troy Coons, a farmer and chairman of the Northwest Landowners Association, an agriculture group.
Last year on this site we told the personal story of Steve and Jacki Schilke, whose farm near Williston was devastated for years because of a produced water spill.
It’s important to understand that these are not oil pipeline spills like the ones that have occurred under the Yellowstone River. These spills involve the transport of “produced water” from wells. According to the USGS, “20-30 billion barrels of produced water are generated by oil and gas production operations in the US each year. This is 70 times the volume of all liquid hazardous wastes generated in the US.”
What is particularly upsetting to farmers and ranchers is that there are technologies available to monitor these pipelines and identify leaks, but there are few regulations that require this to be done. The network of produced water pipelines is so extensive that oil-producing states just can’t keep up in the face of industry opposition to regulation.
For example, the Wall Street Journal reports that the January leak that released nearly three million gallons before it was discovered was a “six-month-old pipeline that had a monitoring system to detect leaks, but nobody turned it on amid a boom-fueled rush to lay more pipe, according to both state officials and an executive with the company that owns the line, Summit Midstream Partners LLC of the Woodlands, Texas.
“We have laid so much pipe and had turned on so many sites that we just hadn’t gotten to that yet,” said John Millar, a vice president at Summit in charge of developing and managing pipeline.
Montana has minimal monitoring requirements for these pipelines
While North Dakota passed legislation in April that requires plans for leak detection and monitoring, third-party inspections and increased disclosure of engineering plans, these plans will not be broadly enforced, and penalties are limited to $12,500 per day.
But these enforcement measures are much more demanding than the rules that exist in Montana today. Montana’s pipeline safety rules are general and often decades old. You can find them here, but the law specifically regarding inspections and violations will give you a sense of how toothless they are:
(1) The commission, its employees, or authorized agents, have the power to investigate all methods and practices of pipeline owners and operators; to require the maintenance and filing of reports, records and other information in the form and detail as the commission may prescribe; to enter upon and to inspect the property, buildings, plants, and offices of pipeline owners and operators; and to inspect books, records, papers and documents relevant to enforcement responsibilities under the NGPSA.
(2) The commission, a staff member thereof, or some person appointed by it, may investigate and make inquiry into every incident occurring in the operation of any intrastate gas pipeline located in this state. The commission, in its discretion, may also investigate any other accident or event involving the operation of a pipeline.
It is worth noting that Governor Schweitzer, in the wake of the Yellowstone pipeline spill involving the Silvertip Pipeline, formed the Montana Oil Pipeline Safety Review Council by executive order, but this body is concerned only with oil pipelines, not produced water pipelines.
What it means for us along the Beartooth Front
If drilling expands along the Beartooth Front, there will need to be pipelines built to transport produced water. Since Montana law does not effectively regulate these pipelines, they will not be appropriately monitored or inspected, and there will not be a requirement to use technology that will make them safer
When these pipelines are built, there will only be one way to regulate them — through local zoning. It is entirely appropriate to do this — there is no reason that operators should not be held to best practices by local communities interested in protecting farm and ranchland from unnecessary contamination.
Oil extraction technology has changed dramatically over the last decade. Montana state law has not caught up, and it is clear that the state legislature has no interest in moving quickly to protect local communities.
This is why landowners along the Beartooth Front are moving lawfully to set up local zones that will protect them.
You should support them.