EDITOR'S NOTE: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that The Bureau of Reclamation’s Dakotas Area Office did not respond to requests for comment. The article has been corrected to identify that the agency which did not respond to comment was the Bureau of Land Management.
Extracting oil can be a messy affair, but what about cleaning up?
In a presentation to Professor Toby Stroh’s reclamation class at Dickinson State University on March 2, attorney Fintan Dooley said that state laws in North Dakota require oil companies to not only haul away their equipment, but restore the site to its original state. Dooley alleges that this hasn’t been properly done for decades as a direct result of improper enforcement of the law —a failure Dooley attributed to corruption but did not offer any direct evidence of.
The North Dakota Industrial Commission, Dooley alleged, has allowed oil companies to hold off on cleaning up and restoring contaminated land and only to later file bankruptcy or “walk off,” with the expectation being that the land being reclaimed will be covered at the expense of the people of North Dakota.
According to the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division website, “reclamation occurs when an oil well ceases to be commercially viable.” Dooley believes that therein lies a problem, as the definition lacks clarity and parameters and only further provides stalling of the reclamation process.
In a 2014 article in The New York Times called, “The Downside of The Boom,” it was reported that the commission headed by then Gov. Jack Dalrymple found that one oil company, Continental Resources, had spilled more than 1.6 million gallons over a six year period. According to the article, the commission decided to fine Continental $222,000 of which they paid only $22,000.
Dooley described further ways that the state has neglected to uphold its duty toward oil companies, saying that the state often favors oil companies over landowners.
“You don’t win. You don’t win a case when the agency is against you...when they’ve already structured into the reclamation program. (You have) a 30 day period for you to object to the reclamation they didn’t tell you was gonna happen,” Dooley said.
Describing a scenario in which oil companies have reclaimed land without prior notice, Dooley explained that the landowner is often left unknowingly behind the eight-ball. According to him, after 30 days if the owner isn’t fully satisfied and desires to file a claim against the oil company for failing to properly reclaim the land, they can’t under the current process.
Further exasperating the land reclamation headaches are creditors, who often will not lend on any land with unresolved salt contamination.
“Farm Credit is concerned about taking security in any property that has or potentially has hazardous material on the premises...it is and has been the policy of FCSND (Farm Credit Services of North Dakota) to not take security in property that is environmentally damaged...and will deny approval if credit was requested,” said AGRIBank executive Claude Sem.
For the past 15 years, Dooley alleges that the Oil and Gas Division of the NDIC has received thousands of complaints and reports regarding site spills, yet have done nothing to count the cost of reclamation on state residents.
According to Dooley’s report, no one seems to know what the exact costs are.
“There is little or no data recorded by the Commission on the average costs of cleanup of those same spills...due to lack of data on remediation costs...those costs ought to be declared under oath by a qualified third-party engaged to oversee each well closure,” Dooley said.
Dooley insisted that he and rancher Donald “Donny” Nelson want litigation to be a last resort, and instead are calling on state legislators to address the problem.
According to the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division, there are more than 10,400 wells and facility sites in the state that have been successfully reclaimed. Nearly 1,500 sites have been reclaimed, but are pending final approval for bond release by the state.
“Less than 1% of sites require long term environmental evaluation,” a frequently asked question on the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division website alleges.
The Bureau of Land Management did not respond to requests for comment.