North Dakota will study saltwater disposal fires caused by lightning

Smoke fills the sky after an explosion and fire at a saltwater disposal site near Watford City in January.

When a saltwater tank gets hit by lighting, chaos quickly follows. Not only is there a fire that is likely to destroy the entire tank battery, spilling oil and produced water, but the lids themselves fly like frisbees.

Just ask Karolin Jappe, McKenzie County’s Emergency Management Director. Her county has had four lightning strikes on saltwater disposal units this year alone. And she says that number is not unusual.

“I lose four to five salt water disposals a year,” Jappe told the Williston Herald. “If you look at all the well pads, the central tank batteries, the compressor gas plants — we have more static electricity than the rest of the state.”

Among the fires this year was one that consumed a facility that was just five months old.

“It was a beautiful facility,” Jappe said. “But it had 13 fiberglass tanks.”

All of four of McKenzie County’s fires involved fiber glass tanks, she added.

Static electricity is what Jappe and many others in the oil and gas industry believe is attracting lightning strikes to fiberglass tanks. That is why the emergency management director has been pushing for changes to how the risks are managed, including what types of tanks are used.

As a result, the state’s Oil and Gas Research Council has recently voted to recommend commissioning a $300,000 study of lightning strikes and saltwater disposal fires by the Energy and Environmental Research Council.

Funding would come from a special pool that has been set aside for emerging issues.

“Normally the Research Council requires a 50 percent private or federal match,” North Dakota Department of Minerals Director Lynn Helms said. “But money from that pool does not.”

The proposal would require approval by the North Dakota Industrial Commission, which will consider the matter Aug. 28.

Helms brought up the matter of saltwater disposal fires with the Oil and Gas Research Council last week.

The state’s top oil and gas regulator said he is seeing a significant increase in the number of disposal well permits, which he expects to double or triple in the next decade or two.

“Anecdotally the reports are that fiberglass tanks, when fluid flows through them — especially salty water — build up a significant static electric charge,” Helms said. “It’s something I’m told that you can physically feel if you are near the tank.”

If that’s the case, it’s a serious issue, and not only because it can attract lightning,” Helms said.

“It’s also creating hazards for connecting trucks and things like that,” he said. “You could get a spark.”

While some ideas for solutions have already been proposed, such as requiring the use of steel tanks, Helms wants to see a more comprehensive look at the problem before settling on recommendations for best practices.

“Rather than leap, we think we should get some science behind it first,” Helms said.

John Harju, with the EERC, said they are already drafting up some ideas on what could and should be done as far as studying the problem.

“There is some literature that needs to be reviewed,” he said, “and there are people we need to interview to just get a better handle on what is actually known versus what do people believe.”

Anecdotes aside, Harju said he has not seen any solid data on fundamental differences between salt water in fiber glass versus steel.

“We just need to do our due diligence, so we can design whatever follow-on study needs to be done appropriately,” Harju said.

Jappe, meanwhile, said she just wants companies to realize that lightning is a real hazard, and plans to work individually with companies to make sure they are fully aware of the risks.

“The weather can get wild out here,” she said. “And every well pad has salt water tanks on it.”

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