By DEBORAH SONTAG and ROBERT GEBELOFF
22 November 2014
Williston, North Dakota (The New York Times) — In early August 2013, Arlene Skurupey of Blacksburg, Va., got an animated call from the normally taciturn farmer who rents her family land in Billings County, N.D. There had been an accident at the Skurupey 1-9H oil well. “Oh, my gosh, the gold is blowing,” she said he told her. “Bakken gold.”
It was the 11th blowout since 2006 at a North Dakota well operated by Continental Resources, the most prolific producer in the booming Bakken oil patch. Spewing some 173,250 gallons of potential pollutants, the eruption, undisclosed at the time, was serious enough to bring the Oklahoma-based company’s chairman and chief executive, Harold G. Hamm, to the remote scene.
It was not the first or most catastrophic blowout visited by Mr. Hamm, a sharecropper’s son who became the wealthiest oilman in America and energy adviser to Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential campaign. Two years earlier, a towering derrick in Golden Valley County had erupted into flames and toppled, leaving three workers badly burned. “I was a human torch,” said the driller, Andrew J. Rohr.
Blowouts represent the riskiest failure in the oil business. Yet, despite these serious injuries and some 115,000 gallons spilled in those first 10 blowouts, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which regulates the drilling and production of oil and gas, did not penalize Continental until the 11th.
The commission — the governor, attorney general and agriculture commissioner — imposed a $75,000 penalty. Earlier this year, though, the commission, as it often does, suspended 90 percent of the fine, settling for $7,500 after Continental blamed “an irresponsible supervisor” — just as it had blamed Mr. Rohr and his crew, contract workers, for the blowout that left them traumatized.
Since 2006, when advances in hydraulic fracturing — fracking — and horizontal drilling began unlocking a trove of sweet crude oil in the Bakken shale formation, North Dakota has shed its identity as an agricultural state in decline to become an oil powerhouse second only to Texas. A small state that believes in small government, it took on the oversight of a multibillion-dollar industry with a slender regulatory system built on neighborly trust, verbal warnings and second chances.
In recent years, as the boom really exploded, the number of reported spills, leaks, fires and blowouts has soared, with an increase in spillage that outpaces the increase in oil production, an investigation by The New York Times found. Yet, even as the state has hired more oil field inspectors and imposed new regulations, forgiveness remains embedded in the Industrial Commission’s approach to an industry that has given North Dakota the fastest-growing economy and lowest jobless rate in the country. […]
Over the past nine months, using previously undisclosed and unanalyzed records, bolstered by scores of interviews in North Dakota, The Times has pieced together a detailed accounting of the industry’s environmental record and the state’s approach to managing the “carbon rush.”
The Times found that the Industrial Commission wields its power to penalize the industry only as a last resort. It rarely pursues formal complaints and typically settles those for about 10 percent of the assessed penalties. Since 2006, the commission has collected an estimated $1.1 million in fines. This is a pittance compared with the $33 million (including some reimbursements for cleanups) collected by Texas’ equivalent authority over roughly the same period, when Texas produced four times the oil.
“We’re spoiling the child by sparing the rod,” said Daryl Peterson, a farmer who has filed a complaint seeking to compel the state to punish oil companies for spills that contaminated his land. “We should be using the sword, not the feather.” [more]