STANLEY — Democrats edged out of the political process held their own hearing Wednesday to talk about pipeline safety in light of the nation’s largest on-land oil spill near Tioga.
A pinpoint hole in a 6-inch line spilled 20,000 barrels into a farmer’s field north of Tioga, reportedly making it a record-setting event here and across the country.
The number of spills increases every year along with the increased number of oil wells and Democrats heard that the public is concerned about all pipelines, not just the big ones that carry high volumes of oil.
There are as many as 10,000 smaller pipelines that carry saltwater and gather up oil and gas from oil wells and the state is only just starting to regulate those as of this year.
Rep. Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, chaired the field hearing and said even he didn’t realize until now how lax the situation had been to this point.
He said Democrats will continue to hold hearings on other topics now that they’ve been marginalized in the interim committee process. The others were Rep. Marvin Nelson, D-Rolla, and Sen. John Warner, D-Ryder.
Troy Coons of rural Donnybrook, a member of the Northwest Landowners, said even the new law to regulate all those smaller lines is not nearly tough enough.
Coons said companies shouldn’t be able to self-certify their lines without any oversight.
“The law is not a fourth of what it should have been,” he said.
About 50 people attended the hearing held at Mountrail County’s south complex building at the fair ground. The first serious snow of the season may have kept some people off the busy oil traffic roads.
To set the tone of the meeting, John Berger of Tesoro said his company has recovered about 5,000 barrels of the spilled oil and continues to clean another 20 to 30 barrels a day. It was allowed to restart the pipeline at the end of October.
He said the small hole was caused by an electric fault of some kind, but the cause remains unknown.
“The failure was unusual, some kind of current still undefined,” he said.
In the meantime, the state Oil and Gas Division is beginning a program with some regulations for all pipelines related to oil and gas that aren’t already under jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission or a federal agency.
Division director Lynn Helms said the public can comment on the new rules now.
“Prior to 2013, there was no real jurisdiction any place,” he said.
With new rules, pipelines will have to be mapped and subject to spot inspection by his agency. Companies that lie on the certification documentation of the pipeline materials will be subject to a felony charge.
Good leak-detection technology is key, but Helms said the number of spills — there were more than 1,250 so far this year, up from about 250 in 2004 — is substantial, but isn’t growing in proportion to the number of wells coming on.
He said 80 percent of spills are contained on-site, likening them to wine spilled on top of a TV tray.
“It’s the 20 percent that are off the TV tray that I worry about,” he said.
State Health Department chief Dave Glatt said his agency is starting up a website so the public can see every spill, the quantity and the contents.
Helms said he thinks the public will be surprised by how small nearly all of those spills actually are.
In the end, landowner Mark Nesheim of rural Palermo said he wasn’t sure if the hearing was valuable and whether Helms would take anything back to Bismarck.
“This is the worst representation of an industry I’ve ever seen,” he said at the hearing. He said pipeline crews don’t repack the soil after excavation, causing him and their own crews to fall into holes with equipment.
“I will never, ever give another easement again,” he said. “If I do, they will have to bore.”
Landowner Bob Grant said the pipeline industry needs much more oversight out on the land.
“They’re throwing ice and rocks on top of the lines,” trying to bury them in winter, Grant said. “Is there some way to hold the companies responsible?”