Small pipelines draw more interest in N.D.

BISMARCK, N.D. -- More than 20,000 miles of gathering pipelines in North Dakota have operated with little regulation, but the supervisor of a new pipeline program says that's changing.


BISMARCK, N.D. - More than 20,000 miles of gathering pipelines in North Dakota have operated with little regulation, but the supervisor of a new pipeline program says that's changing.

Seven of 10 positions have been filed in the Department of Mineral Resources pipeline program, staff positions that will allow state regulators to have oversight over small pipelines that transport crude oil, saltwater and other liquids.

Kevin Connors, who took over in October as supervisor of the program, said four pipeline inspectors are out in the field and the department is working to hire two more.

"I want to make a difference, and same with my staff," Connors said.

North Dakota took a baby step toward regulating gathering pipelines after the 2013 legislative session when lawmakers first gave the North Dakota Industrial Commission oversight over gathering pipelines, which don't fall under other federal or state jurisdiction.


Prior to that, the pipelines that gather crude oil, saltwater and other liquids from wells to processing facilities had no oversight. The state has nearly 23,000 miles of such pipelines and is projected to have 50,000 miles in the future.

Earlier this year, legislators responded to concerns about gathering pipeline spills and approved legislation to give state regulators a larger regulatory role. House Bill 1358 directed the North Dakota Industrial Commission to develop new rules to improve pipeline safety.

A study completed this month by the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota makes several recommendations that will be used to guide the new rules and define the role of the pipeline program.

"We're literally building this program from the ground up," said Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter.

The department plans to use an "inspect the inspector" approach to oversee gathering pipelines, similar to how the agency oversees oil and gas measurement, said Director Lynn Helms.

State pipeline inspectors will be out in the field to verify that third-party inspectors are in compliance with the state's requirements and that they're enforcing the manufacturer's specifications, Connors said.

The state now has two pipeline inspectors based in Dickinson, two in Minot and is advertising for two more in Williston, said Connors, who began working for the Department of Mineral Resources in 2010 as a field inspector in Williston.

Those inspectors are looking for new construction, responding to spills or repairs of existing pipelines and inspecting pipelines that are being abandoned, Connors said.


However, current state rules have limitations for the state inspectors.

For example, there's no requirement for the state to be notified in advance that a gathering pipeline is being constructed, so state pipeline inspectors rely on field observations from other state oil and gas inspectors.

The EERC report recommends that companies give 30-day notification of a new pipeline, which would allow inspectors to prioritize their schedules to inspect newly installed pipelines, Connors said.

Increasing oversight of third-party inspectors would be an effective way to improve construction of pipelines, said Kevin Pranis, a spokesman for the Laborers' International Union of North America.

Union members working in North Dakota have observed third-party inspectors who are aggressive and keep contractors in compliance, while others sign off on substandard work or look the other way to allow a project to get done quickly, Pranis said.

"Third-party inspectors do whatever the (pipeline) owner wants them to do," he said.

But if the state was monitoring the third-party inspectors, companies would be discouraged from taking shortcuts, Pranis said.

"If there's a likelihood that you're going to get caught and there are consequences to getting caught, then companies are deterred," Pranis said.

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