State officials have noticed a worrisome trend the past few months in the oil fields on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation: The amount of natural gas that’s flared at oil well sites is rising.
Up until this spring, flaring on the reservation was in line with the rest of North Dakota’s oil patch.
“But beginning in March or April we started to see them fall seriously behind,” said Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms at his monthly press briefing on oil and gas production.
The state has worked over the past few years to reduce the amount of excess natural gas that’s burned off at oil well sites. The industry’s built new pipelines to capture it and facilities to process it.
But a couple events happened recently affecting flaring on the reservation. A transmission pipeline was shut down for a few days for repairs. The same goes for a gas processing plant while it underwent an inspection as it changed ownership.
“Outside of Fort Berthold, gas capture is at 91 percent, well above state goals at this point in time,” Helms said. “But on Fort Berthold, trust lands are at 79 percent, and fee lands at 81 percent.”
Helms said there’s a bigger problem that could keep these numbers troublesome in the long term. It has to do with the permitting process for building new pipelines on Indian land. Specifically, delays when it comes to the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs granting a project a right of way.
“There’s too many steps in the process, and they take way too long,” he said.
He said the agency granted a permit for one project this spring, but the process took three years. And there’s another pipeline project still waiting.
There’s talk with the federal government about delegating this authority to the Three Affiliated Tribes, which could speed up the process, he said.
Despite all these challenges to addressing the flaring problem, Helms said a new proposed gas processing plant south of Watford City could help.
“There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Still, it won’t solve the problem immediately, as construction isn’t slated to start until next spring.