Oil-well reclamation processes across the Bakken

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Photo credit: Jon Ellingson.

Thousands of oil wells have been successfully drilled and developed in the Bakken region of Canada and the United States. However, once a well is no longer viable economically, it will be eventually abandoned. Whether in the United States or Canada, there are similar regulations that guide the reclamation process. For companies operating in the Bakken in these different jurisdictions, a complete understanding of the rules and regulations is required.

Typically, well-site abandonment begins with the removal of site infrastructure including well-head equipment, tanks and associated buildings. The well-bore is plugged and cut off below the surface. The well site and any associated access roads are then reclaimed. During production, partial reclamation may also occur, as an operator will often minimize the footprint of disturbance by reclaiming portions of the well lease not needed for production operations.

One of the primary goals of reclamation on land impacted by oil and gas developments is to restore the site stability and ecological functions. This is accomplished by returning disturbed lands to their original use prior to disturbance, which can range from agricultural production to wildlife habitat. Successful reclamation on land utilized for agricultural purposes must meet minimum requirements for topsoil depth, plant height, density and vigor that are comparable to vegetation and soil assessments on undisturbed lands adjacent to the lease. Often, the benchmark for successful reclamation in native prairie environments is the establishment of native plant communities that are self-sustaining and meet the standards for density and forage production, and the re-contouring of all disturbed land area to match or blend with the original landform.

Regulations related to the abandonment of exploration or production wells vary, depending on the province or state in which the well is located. There are often additional requirements if the well is located on federally controlled land.

In Saskatchewan, there are several regulatory requirements under the Oil and Gas Conservation Regulations that must be met prior to a well or facility receiving an Acknowledgement of Reclamation.   The Saskatchewan Ministry of Economy administers this Act and is responsible for issuing the Acknowledgement of Reclamation.  The process includes the submission of landowner’s acknowledgement, Phase 1 Environmental Site Assessment (ESA), a Phase 2 ESA (where applicable), remediation report (where applicable) and a Detailed Site Assessment (DSA).   Within six months of approval of the detailed site assessment, the Acknowledgment of Reclamation application can be submitted.   The reclamation liability associated with the site will be removed once the Acknowledgement of Reclamation is issued and accepted by the Ministry of Economy.

In Manitoba, the licensee can apply for a Certificate of Abandonment under the Oil and Gas Act.  Once the Certificate of Abandonment is issued, the licensee is still liable for costs associated with site and any land or ground-water contaminants six years after the certificate is issued.

In North Dakota, oil-well abandonment must meet certain specifications in accordance with North Dakota Administrative Code (NDAC) regulations.  Oil wells must be plugged in a manner that will permanently confine all oil, gas, and water in the strata that originally contained them.  All casing strings must be cut off at least three feet (one metre) below the final surface contour and a cap shall be welded on.  Any core or stratigraphic test holes drilled to or below sands containing freshwater also need to be plugged in accordance with the applicable provisions above.

North Dakota regulations regarding site construction and reclamation are also found in the NDAC. The regulations state “that topsoil shall be removed, stockpiled, and stabilized or otherwise reserved for use when the area is reclaimed.” Within six months after completion of a well, any portion of the well site not used for well operations must be reclaimed unless waived by the director of the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Well sites and all associated facilities are required to be stabilized to prevent erosion.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) requires that interim reclamation consists of minimizing the footprint of disturbance by reclaiming all portions of the well site not needed for production operations. The BLM also states that reclamation will begin as soon as practical, but no later than six months after the installation of any production facilities. The operator will monitor the pad for the life of the project and will control all noxious and invasive plants using methods that have been approved by the BLM.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) also requires that reclamation be initiated six months after construction, if environmentally feasible. The BIA considers reclamation successful if seeded areas become established, adjacent vegetative communities encroach back into disturbed areas, and noxious weeds have been controlled. If the seeding effort is unsuccessful after two years, the BIA may require additional action from the operator. In Canada, for wells or facilities located on federal land, the lessee must receive authorization from the responsible federal regulatory authority (e.g., Indian Oil and Gas Canada) as well as the provincial regulatory authority (e.g., Saskatchewan Ministry of Economy, Manitoba Petroleum Branch) prior to abandoning the well or facility.

Regulations and best management practices are in place in Canada and the United States to ensure that operators responsibly restore lands back to a condition that allow landowners and occupants to continue to safely utilize the land in a productive fashion. Despite the jurisdiction, an operator must undertake activities that will result in successful reclamation of the site upon abandonment of a well. Effective management of abandoned oil and gas sites can assist in reducing environmental liabilities.

Golder Associates has offices in the Bakken region in Canada and the United States and works closely with our clients to assist them with the many steps required to successfully abandon and reclaim their sites and meet regulatory obligations.

About Golder Associates                 

With offices strategically placed in the Bakken Shale region in Estevan, Sask., and Bismarck, N.D., Golder is well-positioned to provide a full range of environmental and ground engineering services to our oil and gas clients on both sides of the Canadian-U.S. border. To learn more about our services in the Bakken, please contact Brad Novecosky in Estevan (bnovecosky@golder.com, 306.634.2814) or Jon Ellingson in Bismarck (jellingson@golder.com, 701.258.5905).

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