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Program aims for oversight of gathering lines

Posted 1/12/16 (Tue)

This is the second of two parts.
By Cecile Krimm
A new program is aimed at providing state oversight that previously had been lacking in the development of gathering pipelines for crude oil and salt water transportation between well sites.
At the same time three significant brine leak cases are winding their way toward negotiation of possible fines in Divide, Williams and Burke counties, the state just last month received a study commissioned by the state legislature to help point the way toward prevention of such cases in the future.
The study, said John Harju, vice president of strategic partnerships for the Energy and Environmental Research Center (EERC), “is not really pleasing anyone,” showing both the petroleum industry and the state could do a better job, both in building this infrastructure and in making sure it is safe.
Prior to the 2015 session, said Harju, the state did not have much authority to govern these pipelines. 
HB 1358, passed last year, remedied that, said Kevin Connors, the head of the new pipeline oversight department at the Oil and Gas Division. Six new field inspectors will soon be “inspecting the inspectors” to help insure such pipelines meet manufacturers specifications for installation and operation.
Connors allowed it may sound odd to the public that private, third party inspectors are the ones to sign off on pipeline completions, but that’s the standard in the industry. These inspectors are the ones who make sure welds are properly done, coatings are properly applied and manufacturer’s instructions on pipe are applied appropriately.
It was at the peak of activity in the Bakken oil boom when “these inspectors were not necessarily doing their jobs properly,” said Oil and Gas Division spokesperson Alison Ritter.
That’s why the goal, said Connors, is to make sure those third party inspectors are properly trained, up to date on their knowledge and doing a good job.
Connors is in the midst of reviewing the EERC’s findings to help develop rules that should be in place by the end of the year.
“Everything is on the table right now,” said Connors. “The report is something that’s going to have some influence on our rules.”
The study outlines 23 key observations, findings and recommendations for the state to consider.
“What I believe the state is going to do is act on most of them,” said Harju, but a second part of the study still to be conducted will look at the feasibility of requiring a specific type of monitoring on the lines.
“Leak detection and monitoring does not prevent spills,” he said, which is why making sure pipelines are installed correctly should be the first step.
In addition, said Harju, the study found a “disappointing” lack of quality information regarding previous failures -- often because when a failure occurs, it ends up in litigation. The result is the state and the public may never find out who is at fault or what really caused the spill.
That lack of data also makes it difficult for the state to figure out what sorts of regulations might prevent future incidents.
“Ultimately, there’s some sort of settlement, but it becomes a sealed record,” Harju said, and nobody learns from it.
“If there are systemic problems . . . they are, unfortunately, masked,” Harju said.
He said it would be helpful for the state to be able to retrieve that information and make laws or regulations aimed at prevention of future incidents.
Anecdotally, he said, the data that is available indicates poor workmanship is frequently to blame when a leak occurs.
With 20,000 miles of such pipeline already in the ground and much more to go in, said Harju, “you start where you start, I guess.”
The timing of a leak now believed to have put brine into Blacktail Creek for months -- discovered last January -- was fortuitous for bringing the issue before the state legislature and HB 1358 was the result, said Ritter.
Like Harju, Connors said some of the recommendations may not be feasible, but the provisions of HB 1358 are already insuring for the first time that the state will be notified when these gathering systems are installed and give the state access to design drawings, a list of independent inspectors and a plan for leak protection and monitoring on gathering pipelines.
Pipeline companies will also have to furnish a bond covering the operation of these gathering systems.
“The idea of the program is not the citing or approval of routes but rather to build on our jurisdiction of knowing when and how they are installed,” said Ritter.