Study: Planning key to minimizing effect of oil on Badlands

WILLISTON, N.D. -- Better planning and coordination are needed to reduce the impact of oil development in North Dakota's Badlands, a report released today says.

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A workover rig stands over six pumping oil wells in the Little Missouri Grassland breaks north of Killdeer, N.D., in Dunn County, on Oct. 18, 2015. (Dustin Monke / Forum News Service)

WILLISTON, N.D. - Better planning and coordination are needed to reduce the impact of oil development in North Dakota's Badlands, a report released today says.

More than 70 North Dakotans participated in a study aimed at assessing oil development in the Badlands and the Little Missouri River Valley, with most agreeing that more should be done to preserve the land while developing the resources.

"The overriding theme was that we need to do a better job with the surface, for the surface owner, for ranching and for wildlife," said Rod Backman, owner of Covenant Consulting Group in Bismarck, which conducted the study.

The firm conducted interviews with ranchers, conservation representatives, government officials and the oil industry to gauge the stakeholders' attitudes and identify areas for improvement.

Most participants were not critical about the oil industry's development in the Badlands, but commented that it came too fast and resulted in some areas of duplicate infrastructure, Backman said.


For example, the study authors learned about two areas in the Badlands where competing companies built parallel roads to access oil wells that are 300 feet apart. Had those companies collaborated, they could have reduced the impact to the land, Backman said.

"These are companies that are competing against each other, so there's a natural tendency not to cooperate," Backman said.

Others raised concerns about reclamation issues, such as oil wells drilled in the 1980s that were no longer producing but the land had not been restored.

Several ranchers commented that oil companies would move facilities or roads for landowners who owned minerals, "but if you don't have minerals, they don't pay much attention to you," Backman said.

The study, funded by the World Wildlife Fund, was not aimed at hindering oil development, but designed to spur discussion about ways to minimize impacts in the future.

North Dakota has more than 13,000 producing oil and gas wells, and is protected to ultimately have between 55,000 to 65,000 wells.

"If that's really what's in North Dakota's future, we should probably have a long-term strategic plan," Backman said.

An advisory group now plans to take findings from the study and discuss possible next steps, such as recommendations for legislative action.


Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, who had been briefed on the study, said federal land managers have often asked companies for five- or 10-year plans, but those can be challenging for the industry.

"The reality is, it's very hard to plan ahead when you don't know what the future economics are," Ness said.

The full report is expected to be available at .

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