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Big pipeline spills should soon be a thing of the past says a ND official

Troy Coons, from left, chairman of the Northwest Landowners Association, Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and landowner Gary Tofte talk on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, during the association's landowner expo in Stanley, N.D. (Amy Dalrymple/Forum News Service)

STANLEY -– Pipeline spills should become a smaller problem in North Dakota after new regulations are developed, a state official said Tuesday.

“We shouldn’t have large spills anymore. That’s my goal,” said Kevin Connors, pipeline program supervisor for the Department of Mineral Resources.

Connors outlined the new state pipeline program to about 300 landowners, state officials and oil company representatives who gathered Tuesday in Stanley for a Northwest Landowners Association expo.

New rules on gathering pipelines being proposed to the Industrial Commission this month aim to reduce the number of small pipeline spills and eliminate large spills that go undetected, Connors said.

The rules, which the public will have the opportunity to comment on before they take effect next January, will emphasize better pipeline installation and more thorough third-party inspections.

“Making sure these pipelines are installed properly is better than any leak detection technology out there,” Connors said.

The Northwest Landowners Association, a grassroots group that promotes balancing the rights of landowners with oil and gas development, brought Connors and other state and industry officials together Tuesday to meet with landowners.

Chairman Troy Coons said the group has seen improvements in how state agencies and oil companies respond to landowner issues, including recent legislative changes that are leading to more robust pipeline regulations.

“There’s definitely more that needs to be done, but they can see there are some changes,” Coons said.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem, one of three members on the Industrial Commission, said the commission strives to balance welcoming the oil industry while requiring companies to follow the rules and leave things better than when they came.

“That is the delicate and very difficult and controversial balance that those of us on the Industrial Commission try to strike,” he said.

Stenehjem defended the Industrial Commission’s practice of suspending a large portion of fines for oil companies, pointing out that companies are often required to meet conditions that cost more to implement than the fines.

“We would much rather impose a significant penalty, suspend a lot of it on conditions that are very important, and conditions that can make sure that we’re actually going to end up in better shape,” Stenehjem said.

Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, who also serves on the Industrial Commission, encouraged landowners to use the department’s new pilot program designed to help resolve issues with pipeline reclamation.

“It’s working. It’s helping. It’s building bridges, and our companies are doing a better job of engaging the contractors and subcontractors and making sure they’ll held accountable,” Goehring said.

Several officials said improving communication between landowners and companies can resolve many issues, whether it’s a spill cleanup or pipeline reclamation.

“We often act on behalf of landowners who have an issue,” said Public Service Commission Chairwoman Julie Fedorchak. “I have yet to have a company say we’re not going to do it, we’re not going to fix it. Quite frequently, they tell us they weren’t aware.”

Kathy Johnson, who farms south of Arnegard, said many of the efforts outlined Tuesday, including improvements on pipeline reclamation, are a step in the right direction.

“Now we know another avenue of who to contact,” Johnson said.

Dennis Johnsrud, who farms near Epping, said he’s been reluctant to allow new pipelines until issues with existing pipelines get resolved.

“It’s important that we come together and get some of it fixed,” Johnsrud said.

Property owners are becoming more educated and better able to respond to challenges than they were in the early days of the Bakken development, Coons said.

“This came on so fast, they didn’t know about the proper leases and what to ask for,” Coons said. “It overwhelmed them, all of us.”

A video and other information from the event will be posted at http://nwlandowners.com.

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