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Pumping units

Pumping units are pictured near Williston on June 14, 2016. 

Groups that represent North Dakota landowners plan to oppose a bill that would reduce the number of spills the oil industry reports.

House Bill 1151 would raise the threshold on spill reporting, exempting companies from having to report spills up to 10 barrels, or 420 gallons, that are contained on an oil well site or saltwater disposal well.

Bill sponsor Rep. Roscoe Streyle, R-Minot, said his proposal would bring state law in line with federal standards for reporting spills on well sites, which are designed to contain small spills.

The proposal would not change the requirement for companies to clean up all spills, Streyle said.

In addition, companies would still be required to report every pipeline spill and other spills that are not on an oil location, regardless of size, he said.

The proposal would reduce the amount of time state regulators spend on small spills, Streyle said.

“We should focus those resources instead to the ones that do potentially pose an environmental impact,” he said.

Groups including the Northwest Landowners Association said they oppose the bill. Chairman Troy Coons said landowners with oil and gas development on their property want to be informed about all spills, even if the incident is contained on a well location.

“You need all of this data to know what the trends are,” Coons said. “When you get to the size of 10 barrels, that’s a large volume of liquid. It’s too large to be unreported.”

Members of the Dakota Resource Council plan to testify against the bill, which has a hearing at 2 p.m. today before the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

“The process of finding out about these spills is already complicated enough. People need to know what’s happening out in the Bakken,” said Nicole Donaghy, oil and gas organizer for the grassroots group. “It’s not a good piece of legislation to keep people even more in the dark.”

State regulators were still crunching the numbers Wednesday to determine how the bill would have affected spill reporting last year.

In 2016, North Dakota had a total of 1,248 spills reported in the oilfield database. That doesn’t include some incidents such as transmission pipeline spills and truck rollovers that may get reported in a different category.

Bill Suess, spill investigation program manager for the North Dakota Department of Health, estimates that nearly half of all oilfield spills investigated by the health department were 10 barrels or less and contained to the well site in 2016.

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His figures exclude 154 spills that occurred on tribal land because the health department doesn’t have jurisdiction on the Fort Berthold Reservation. The North Dakota Industrial Commission does share jurisdiction on tribal land and was working to estimate an overall figure before Thursday’s hearing.

The health department is not opposed to the bill as long as it’s clear that it only affects spills on location and that all spills need to be cleaned up, Suess said. The health department does not devote staff time to such spills because they fall under the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s jurisdiction, he said.

Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the Department of Mineral Resources, said the agency doesn’t plan to take a position on the bill.

Inspectors spend about an hour investigating every spill, Ritter estimates. Inspectors do travel to follow up on every spill, but the size and whether it’s contained determines how they prioritize it, Ritter said.

North Dakota Petroleum Council President Ron Ness said the industry group plans to support the bill. Well site locations are designed to contain spills much larger than 10 barrels without having an impact on the environment, Ness said.

Reducing the reporting requirement for those small spills will allow more state resources to be focused on responding to more significant spills, Ness said.

Rural Tioga landowner Patty Jensen, whose farmland is still being cleaned up after the 2013 Tesoro oil pipeline spill, questions how regulators would ensure that all spills get cleaned up if they don’t get reported. She also questions who would verify that a spill is 10 barrels or less.

“I’m not very happy about the bill. I don’t think it protects our land. I don’t think it protects our water,” said Jensen, who has an oil well about a mile south of her home. “Somebody has to be overseeing what’s happening.”

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