Federal funding for plugging abandoned or idled wells could help North Dakota free up funding to address its legacy brine pond situation, North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms said.

North Dakota, during the pandemic, used $66 million from CARES Act funding to employ laid off oil and gas workers to plug abandoned and idled wells. That program, called the Bakken Restart, went so well the idea was incorporated in the bipartisan infrastructure plan. The provision, co-sponsored by Sen. Kevin Cramer, dedicates $4 billion for a national restart program, Bakken-style.

States can apply for $25 million annually through 2030 from the REGROW Act for plugging abandoned or idled wells. There are also performance grants to help states beef up their bonding requirements and regulations to help prevent future idled or abandoned wells.

Helms said without this federal funding, the state would have to use up its abandoned well fund to take care of the problem.

“This frees up about $5 million a year to work on the 1960s and 70s legacy brine ponds,” he said.

North Dakota has a number of legacy brine ponds in Burke, Granville and Bottineau counties. Although they date back 30 to 40 years, nature has not improved the brine ponds. Instead, over time, salt in the brine ponds has been migrating out, affecting larger and larger areas.

Helms said he intends to pursue both the $25 million initial grant and the $25 million formula grants for an annual award through 2030.

“We’re also looking really hard at the performance improvement grant to see if, you know, there’s something that we can do where we could hire some people or get some help to make sure that we’re on the leading edge in terms of financial assurance and rules and regulations moving forward,” he said.

The initial infusion of money would be used to clean up leftover problems from the pandemic, Helms added. “We’ve had a couple of operators go bankrupt even since we did the big confiscation project,” he said.

North Dakota has 575 abandoned wells in all. Helms estimated about 300 of those would make an idled or orphaned dwell list. There are also 120 sites leftover from the Cares Act program that need reclamation.

Some of this sites have more contamination than expected, Helms added, and need as much as $30,000 more funding to completely clean up.

“We’ll take our time and do it right,” Helms said.

Helms said much of the concerns highlighted din a recent report by Northwest Landowners are things that have been incorporated into the plans for the REGROW Act funding.

“I think their report and their press release would be a real motivation to apply for the performance improvement grant and to be involved in that process,” Helms said.

As for other lessons learned from the CARES Act and the reports Northwest Landowners issued, Helms acknowledged the state was on a tight timeline for spending the CARES Act money and overestimated how much reclamation work it could get done in the last six months of the year.

“I think we learned that you can’t get in a hurry with that process,” he added. “And it actually needs to be divided into two parts that you can very quickly demobilize the equipment and clean that up and and eliminate any potential for future contamination.”

After that, actually restoring the site can be a four to five-year process, that includes remediation of contamination and testing before topsoil can be returned and new vegetation planted.

“So I’m really happy to see that this REGROW Act has a long tail of formula grants where you can take your time,” Helms said.

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