Preserving N.D.’s land

Myron Hanson, Souris; Troy Coons, Donnybrook; Galen Peterson, Maxbass; Bob Grant, Berthold

As oil and gas facilities are built in our state, we must ensure that further permanent harm to our agricultural land is prevented and that the land can be returned to an economically productive agricultural status. With the prospect of drilling tens of thousands of new sites in the near future, there is no doubt that many thousands of agricultural land acres will be displaced by oil well pads, roads, tank batteries, man camps, permanent waste facilities, and so on.

Our concern is that no uniform regulation and reclamation standards are in place under the auspices of the North Dakota Industrial Commission Oil and Gas Division and the North Dakota Health Department, who are responsible for oversight and enforcement of existing regulatory policies and laws. Our antiquated reclamation and regulation rules currently in place were developed when the pace was slower, there were very few rigs drilling, only 25 percent to 30 percent of those became producing wells, and production per well was much less. Even more troubling, permanent damage has and is occurring at alarming levels due to saltwater spills from pipeline ruptures, tank overflows, rusted-out treaters and equipment, illegal dumping, and other careless oil field activities.

There will always be ‘accidents’ that are unavoidable-but many incidents are caused by negligence, faulty or improperly maintained equipment, tasks completed in haste, failure to follow established safety measures, poor or don’t-care attitudes, and just plain operator error. Damage to land from saltwater spills is almost impossible to repair, and various snake oil solutions in use have proven to be unsatisfactory in North Dakota. Excavating severely damaged soil, hauling it to designated facilities, and replacing it with new clay and topsoil can cost a million dollars per acre. Even after this great expense, much contamination still remains.

As oil and gas production in North Dakota currently escalates each month, including escalation in saltwater production, we cannot allow saltwater spills to be considered “It’s only water.” With every spill, salt remains in the soil and permanently causes our land to be unusable for agricultural production. These ‘accidents’ must be held to a minimum, and with adequate regulation and strict enforcement of regulatory policies and laws, most of these occurrences could be preventable. Today, reported violations often garner little attention. Is this due to insufficient resources, staffing deficiencies, inadequate fines, low regulatory department priority, and/or enforcement difficulty?

Updated regulations and policies that address today’s oilfield technologies and practices must be developed by our North Dakota agencies. True reform must provide real consequences for violators and could even broaden enforcement by levying immediate fines and reward those who report violations. (This practice is done by the North Dakota Game and Fish)

Now is the time for the State and its agencies to vacate past methods and move forward to protect the future of our agricultural community, which now consists of many third- and fourth-generation farmers and ranchers. This new generation can co-exist with responsible development of the State’s oil and gas resources, and these irreplaceable resources deserve protection by appropriate state regulation and enforcement that recognizes the changing scope and pace of today’s oil production activity. The preservation of our land-one of North Dakota’s most valued natural resources-should not be forgotten or ignored during this development.

(The signers of this letter make up the executive board of Northwest Landowners)