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Rules for Abandoned Wells Aim to Soothe ND Landowners' Frustrations

Saltwater injection oil wells have the potential to leak onto farmers' land and make it untenable. (wahoowins/Flickr)
Saltwater injection oil wells have the potential to leak onto farmers' land and make it untenable. (wahoowins/Flickr)
October 14, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. – North Dakota is proposing to strengthen regulations for abandoned oil wells.

The proposals have landowners and groups such as the Dakota Resource Council (DRC) cautiously optimistic, seeing the rules as a long time coming.

Draft rules include a measure to make companies pay a higher bond if a well is classified as abandoned for more than seven years, aiming to ensure the company won't shirk responsibility to plug and clean up the well.

Fintan Dooley is a DRC member who founded the Salted Lands Council to help farmers monitor damage to their land from oil and gas wells. He's threatened to band landowners together and sue the state over damage to their property.

"The rules, I think, are a manifestation of a change in attitude – and they'd better change,” he states. “The mere fact that they're acknowledging that they've got to do something is important."

While Dooley supports the rules, he hopes they can be implemented fast enough to help landowners.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission held a meeting on the proposed rules last week. At the meeting, a North Dakota Petroleum Council representative said the higher bond after the seven-year period could make wells financially unviable.

The commission is accepting written comment on the draft rules through Friday.

There are more than 600 abandoned wells across North Dakota, and Bottineau County is the epicenter of this issue.

Daryl Peterson is a retired farmer from the region who was impacted by abandoned wells in the 1970s and '80s. He's been pushing for decades for better regulations to protect farmers.

"I absolutely am gratified that the state of North Dakota is doing this, but oftentimes what I have found is no matter what they put in regulations and rules, enforcement is the key,” he states. “And if they have the rules on the books, which they say are the best in the country and many cases they are, but if they don't enforce them, it's all for naught."

The DRC also supports rule changes that require abandoned wells be sold to a fully bonded purchaser and higher bonds for saltwater injection wells, which pose hazards to landowners if they spill. The group also would like to see the state do away with alternative bonding, which allows companies to put up equipment as collateral to prove they are financially stable.

Disclosure: Dakota Resource Council contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Energy Policy, Environment, Rural/Farming. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.
Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND