Inside Energy: Spill transparencies

Feb 17, 2015

Our Inside Energy team has spent the past few weeks reporting on oilfield spills, specifically wastewater. In North Dakota’s Bakken oilfield, the number of new wells has soared, and so has the number of spills. As reporter Emily Guerin (GARE-in) discovered, officials there have consistently misrepresented the extent of the problem. They have also made it difficult to get the kind of up-to-date, comprehensive information on spills that is available in places like Colorado.

GUERIN: (sneak in car ambi) Last summer, Daryl Peterson and I bumped along a gravel road near his farm, just south of the Canadian border. Oil boomed here in the 1980s and 90s, and aging pipelines and tanks have caused a lot of spills.

PETERSON: But here, we’re going to see more visible signs of nasty…

GUERIN: Abruptly the green quilt of soybeans and wheat ends. We look out over a vast expanse of puddles and bare soil caked white.

PETERSON: That’s all saltwater.

GUERIN: Saltwater, or wastewater, comes out of the ground during the drilling process. It gets carried by truck or pipeline to a disposal site where it’s sent back underground. In July 2011 (TWENTY ELEVEN), one of those pipelines leaked here. The state’s official report says about 13,000 gallons spilled. But another document from the state Department of Health shows the company later hauled off 2 million gallons of wastewater, making it one of the largest spills in state history. The official spill estimate has not been updated.

PETERSON: This minimizing is only going to benefit probably the regulators who can say spills are down.

GUERIN: Peterson believes if accurate numbers were reported, the spill would’ve gotten more media attention and a better clean-up…And this lack of transparency...its not uncommon. On official Environmental Incident Reports, the spill size is often a rough estimate or it’s left out entirely. That’s because these reports are preliminary, says Lynn Helms.

LYNN HELMS: There is no way that you can have a timely report and an accurate report.

GUERIN: Helms is the state’s top oil and gas regulator. He says he works hard to make sure the final report has an accurate volume. But those updated FINAL reports are hard to find.…and often come years later. With the shaky data we could access now, we calculated that wastewater spills are getting bigger, and large spills are becoming more common.

HELMS: Mr. Chairman and members of the committee, Lynn Helms, department of mineral resources…(duck and hold ambi under)

GUERIN: In 2013, Helms testified against a bill that would’ve required all wastewater pipelines to have monitors, saying the proposal was too broad. In his testimony, he minimized the extent of the state’s spill problem -- one of at least three times he and his staff did so publicly in recent years.

LYNN HELMS: Yes, the number of spills is up. But look at it in comparison to the number of wells.The rate of spills is way, way down.

GUERIN: In fact, the rate of spills was way, way up. That’s according to the state’s own data. It’s more than twice as high as it was in 2006, at the start of the Bakken boom. I asked Helms why he didn’t say that.

HELMS: I never, in a conversation with people, farmers, the general public, get into a whole bunch of statistical analysis business….the detailed statistics are lost on them or just simply don’t work in making a presentation.

GUERIN: Helms now admits that the spills are a problem but says as far as access to information, people just want to know how a particular spill affects them.

HELMS: The general public is not interested in some kind of detailed spreadsheet analysis of the spills, they’re looking for the data journalists to provide that for them.

GUERIN: But if the state really expects the media to analyze trends, they’d make it easier for us. Mark Horvit is the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, an association that advocates for data journalists.

HORVIT: Government officials are perfectly aware that if they give information out in a very difficult to use format, odds are no one will use it and they can completely control the message, ((they can completely control what people know)), and in too many cases, that is their goal.

GUERIN: (sneak in ambi of cafeteria) Earlier this month, I met up with farmer Daryl Peterson again. He would really like to know if the problem is getting worse.

PETERSON: The future of agriculture in North Dakota depends on it, the future of our quality of life in North Dakota depends on it. We can’t be operating on smoke and mirrors. We can’t jeopardize one industry to promote another.

GUERIN: Lawmakers here are getting impatient. Just last month, a new bill was introduced to beef up pipeline monitoring and inspections. This was after yet another huge spill.

RICH WARDNER: I’ve just about had it up to my eyeballs with people taking care of their own.

GUERIN: Republican Rich Wardner is the Senate Majority Leader. He testified in favor...

RICH WARDNER: When you have the fox guarding the henhouse, it’s not very good.

GUERIN: That legislation will probably pass. But as for the coziness with industry, people have been complaining about that for a long time. Here, promotion and regulation go hand in hand. At a recent meeting in the statehouse, Helms wore a yellow silk tie he got at an industry conference. It’s embroidered with little pumpjacks and the words “Bakken Strong.”

For Inside Energy, I’m Emily Guerin.

ANCHOR TAG: To read more about how North Dakota compares to other states on spills and transparency issues, go to our website ________. Inside Energy is a public media collaboration covering America’s energy issues.