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A Cause for Concern: Oil well blowouts

WILLISTON, N.D. – Oil well blowouts are increasing in the Bakken, prompting regulators to take action. North Dakota has had 23 blowouts in the past year, according to the Department of Mineral Resources. “That’s up significantly,” said Lynn Helms, director of the department.A blowout may be an uncontrolled flow of oil, gas, saltwater or a mixture of these. “The fluids flowing out of the well can escape and they’re often flammable,” Helms said. Eighteen of the 23 recent incidents resulted in fewer than 10 barrels of fluid released, and the spills were contained on location. But five incidents were blowouts involving significant volumes and pressures, each spewing 600 barrels to more than 2,000 barrels of oil and saltwater.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission is pursuing action in two of those major blowouts and continues to investigate the three others, Helms said. The commission is seeking $379,025 in penalties from Slawson Exploration, the company that operated a well near the Van Hook Arm of Lake Sakakawea that had oil, gas and saltwater flowing from it for three days last December before operators regained control.

A spill report from the commission says the blowout resulted in the release of 800 barrels of oil and 400 barrels of saltwater. A blowout that same month in McKenzie County prompted the state Industrial Commission to seek $105,380 fines from Newfield Production Co. Investigation continues into a an Aug. 14, 2012, blowout in Williams County, Helms said. That incident also resulted in a worker’s death after he was struck by a pickup driven by another worker who was driving away from the blowout.

After the two significant blowouts last December, regulators approached the North Dakota Petroleum Council with concerns that some changes may need to be made to the state’s rules on well control, Helms said.

Industry representatives have formed a committee to develop best practices. The committee will report back to Helms’ department, and the input may lead to rule changes. In some cases, more training or education may be required.

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