WATFORD CITY — The company responsible for one of the state’s largest spills affecting a water body is working on research and development that will substantially improve leak detection on gathering lines, company officials testified on Tuesday before the Public Service Commission in Watford City.

Ken Dockweiler, director of Land, Government and Compliance for Belle Fourche, mentioned the research during testimony for a pipeline conversion the company is seeking to permit, this time in McKenzie County.

The 20-mile, 8-inch diameter pipeline is to carry 43,000 barrels per day starting from the Wilson Station 6 miles south of Watford City and running 20 miles to the Bowline Junction Station, 19 miles southeast of Alexander.

It’s one of two conversions the company is seeking to permit as part of a reconfiguration of its system. Meanwhile, the company has eliminated the Bicentennial pipeline, which broke after a hillside slumped in 2016, releasing 12,615 barrels of crude into the Ash Coulee Creek, a tributary of the Little Missouri River. The creek has been cleaned, but oil is still seeping out of the hillside.

Both of the pipeline conversions the company seeks to permit are already operating, despite not yet having a permit. A hearing for the other conversion was held Monday in Dickinson.

Dockweiler, pressed for details on the research project by Commissioner Julie Fedorchak, at first said he could not share many details.

“How about a timeline?” Fedorchak suggested.

“We have gone through the proof of concept phase,” Dockweiler said. “And our partner and us believe we have a viable product.”

The new concept is running in parallel with the company’s existing leak detection system, to compare how well each is working, Dockweiler added. Leaks have been simulated using a hydraulic fracturing tank to catch drips and see how well the new concept is working, as well as new management practices the company has implemented.

“Preliminary indications are that it will do a very good job,” Dockweiler said. “But as with all things, the proof is in the pudding.”

Dockweiler said it takes six to nine months to write codes for a conventional leak detection system on gathering lines. Every change takes another six to nine months to write new code.

“What we are looking at is a product that will squeeze that timeline down to make it viable in an ever-changing world,” Dockweiler said. “And something that can detect a smaller leak faster than we can now, as well as get rid of false alarms.”

Untimely permitting

Public Service Commission Chairman Brian Kroshus, meanwhile, pressed the company on its failure to obtain permits before it began operating the converted McKenzie County line and the other converted line, which crosses under the Heart River on its way to a refinery.

Kroshus pointed out the McKenzie County line has been operating as a transmission line since January.

“This process cannot be taken for granted,” he said. “This is not just a formality, even if it’s a conversion. And even if it’s already operating, which technically, it shouldn’t be.”

Kroshus said commissioners have to look at conversion projects as if they are newly going into the ground.

“This is not just for you, but any company in the Bakken,” he added later, in concluding remarks. “This is a very important component to ensure we have safe systems operating, whether in the oil patch or energy sector in general for any type of production.”

Kroshus said commissioners would explore any mistaken impression the company might have gotten from PSC personnel that there was somehow no urgency to complete the permitting process for the existing conversions. The company first discussed the matter 20 months ago, in April 2017.

“That is just incredibly important,” Kroshus said. “We want to see a robust energy and oil and gas industry in this part of the state. It is important for North Dakota and the country. But we want to make sure we are doing it right.”

Permit changes?

Commissioner Randy Christmann said the PSC might make the permits contingent on executing any PHMSA recommendations in an audit of procedures the federal agency is conducting. The North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality recommended a third-party audit for both the Heart River line and the McKenzie County line.

If commissioners do that, the company might want to seek a third-party audit from a different source, Christmann suggested, particularly if the PHMSA audit will be delayed for too much longer due to recent deployment of some personnel overseas.

Division of Water Quality Director Karl Rockeman testified that there are private companies that can do such audits if necessary.

Rockeman also urged commissioners to consider North Dakota Geological Survey information, which shows the McKenzie County pipeline traverses areas of instability. And he recommended that all inputs to the gathering system be metered by Belle Fourche.

Company officials testified that the lines in the unstable areas were bored using horizontal drilling techniques, to put them well below areas of concern. They will receive special attention in routine aerial surveys and other monitoring activities.

Belle Fourche has metered five of the incoming lines for the McKenzie County gathering/transmission system.

It was attempting to use data for the other five from the well operators. But the data could not be input directly into the company’s system. Company officials agreed it would add its own data collection for those inputs soon, to remedy that.

Rockeman indicated that the approaches outlined by the company and the results of a PHMSA audit, if followed, would satisfy the concerns outlined by the Department of Environmental Quality.

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