Environmental Stewardship: And Reclamation

Brett Williamson – Director of North Dakota Operations, Tervita

As the second largest oil producing state in the country with 209 drilling rigs pumping an average of 558,254 barrels a day, North Dakota continues to be the economic envy of many other states that are struggling with large budget deficits, high unemployment rates and negative growth rates. All eyes are on the Peace Garden State as it reports an impressive $1 billion surplus in its state budget and a 3.5 percent unemployment rate (the nation’s lowest) along with an average wage in its oil and gas extraction industry of around $89,000 per year.

While figures such as these are guaranteed to pique the attention of economic movers and shakers worldwide, equally inspiring is the state-of-the-art innovation that takes place everyday with environmental stewardship in the forefront.

Brett Williamson, director of North Dakota operations for Tervita, one of the area’s leading environmental and energy services companies, understands the importance of environmental stewardship. A native North Dakotan, Williamson is committed to preserving the environment and concerned about the lack of understanding associated with the process of drilling, especially fracking. “There is little need for worry about groundwater contamination as long as proven prodedures and protocols are followed,” he said.

Williamson points to the significant progress the industry has made in just a few short years. “The practice of the past resulted in a lot of sites with significant elements of waste left behind,” he said. “Those practices are not acceptable to the industry, governments or land owners.”

“We’re waking up as a country as to where our footprint will be for generations to come. It’s very exciting,” explains Angela Bercier, president of Bottineau-based Paragon Water Solutions, a company that is pioneering the use of an ALAR rotary vacuum filter to clean oil rig fluids. The commitment to the environment in North Dakota has resulted in a plethora of solutions and practices that are focused not only on protecting the environment, but also on ensuring the health and safety of its citizens. “Multitudes of people identify where to drill and how to drill,” says Pat Blau, a special projects manager and chemical engineer in Williston who works for Tervita.

“They are all doing things that are positive, that are driven by caring for the environment.”

Integral to environmental concerns is the use of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) which uses water pressure to create fractures in rock as deep as two miles below the surface, thus allowing the oil and natural gas contained in the rock to escape and flow out of a well. With around 35,000 wells being hydraulically fractured annually in the U.S., the process has been around for nearly 60 years. Because large quantities of water are used, cleaning and disposing of the waste fluids that result is a critical part of the process and the subject of much environmental innovation in North Dakota. As a result, intriguing solutions are being employed by start-up companies as well as large multi-national corporations.

According to Williamson, there is a tremendous amount of research and development going on with regards to cleaning and reusing frac water. “The process of fracking requires huge amounts of water and the trick is to make the process mobile and economically feasible.”

Sustainable Solutions

Bercier’s husband, Dale, who is a well site drilling consultant with 25 years experience under his belt, began looking around for different ways to clean fluids on the rigs several years ago. “We started discussing how this was going to affect North Dakota,” Angela Bercier says. “I’m a big tree hugger.” Near Chicago the couple discovered the ALAR Auto-Vac, a rotary vacuum drum with a filter, which was being used in other industries to manage wastewater at the source through sludge dewatering. When they found that it could also clean fluid from the rigs, they loaded one onto a curtain sided trailer last year and hauled it up to North Dakota where they were able to move it from pad to pad to service the wells. The ALAR process is extremely attractive because it removes solid particles and produces dewatered dry waste which can typically be disposed of in a landfill. Disposing of dirty water in open pits or disposal wells (which is becoming ever more restrictive) is much more costly and less environmentally friendly. ALAR also has the advantage of recycling much of the water which results in benefits to the environment as well as cost savings.

In the past year the Bercier’s family-owned and managed company, Paragon Water Solutions, has doubled its work load from three to six jobs a week using two portable ALAR units to service 20 rigs with four holes each. When they bring two more units online this year, they expect that their work will quadruple and that the number of employees will increase to 40. “We’re the generation that needs to step up,” Bercier says.

Another organization on the front-lines of sustainable resource development, Tervita Corporation, was founded in March. The company was created through a combination of several companies: Hazco, Beck, Concord and CCS. The corporation has 25 years of experience with treatment recovery and disposal, engineered landfill, cavern and salt water disposal, waste transfer stations and bioremediation facilities sprinkled across Canada and the U.S. Tervita specializes in closed loop systems, a mechanical and chemical process that segregates waste streams from drilling fluids at the site and also recycles the water. Advantages include the elimination of open pits along with the reduction of footprint, liquid waste volumes and total water used. “There’s a huge cost benefit to reuse materials. At every stage we’re continuing to reuse,” Blau explains. “If you think about what used to occur, it’s like night and day.”

When it come time for reclamation, Billings,MT-based Environmental Materials Incorporated (EMI) can step in to help companies stabilize oil field waste by using coal fly ash, which is a recycled byproduct of coal-fired electric power generation. Blended to meet the needs of individual clients, ENVIRO DRY solidifies and stabilizes waste streams to prevent contaminants from moving into native soils and ground water. EMI works carefully with customers to ensure that the process is done in an environmentally sound manner. “Fly ash is a powder. We don’t want it blown all over,” explains company president, Jason Vollmar. The company recommends using a pug mill for efficient mixing and control of dust emissions at the site. When the lined pit is filled with the mixture of waste and coal fly ash, the liner is folded over and four feet of earth is put on top of it. “You won’t even know the pit is there,” Vollmar says. Although most of his customers utilize a pit at the drilling rig site, Vollmar says they also have the choice of using a centralized landfill.

Rules and Regulations

Environmental innovation as seen in the oil and gas industry does not happen in a vacuum, however. The State of North Dakota has been a vigilant watchdog for many years. “The oil and gas industry is heavily regulated by the North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC) through the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR). These rules provide requirements for protection of ground water and to prevent spills, and also contain specific requirements for well bore integrity and testing,” explains Kari Cutting, vice president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council. The state recently enacted 26 new rules that are estimated to cost the industry an additional $400 million a year. One of the regulations is to require full disclosure on the FracFocus website of chemicals that are used in fracking.

Other DMR rules, in conjunction with drilling practices, have played a big role in the specifics of environmental stewardship. Horizontal drilling permits the extraction of material for two miles in any direction underground thus reducing the number of wells and well pads as well as the footprint on the land, according to Cutting. “North Dakota was able to surpass the state of California in oil production a few months ago with 10 percent or less of the well count. North Dakota had at that time just over 6,000 wells compared to California with more than 60,000 wells,” she says.

In determining the spacing unit of well development, in most areas the DMR allows one per 1,280 acres which is sufficient for one pad with four holes. DMR rules also dictate pad placement along defined straight lines, such as roads or section lines. “Development in this manner can leave essentially four square miles undisturbed between corridors. This is four square miles that can continue to be used for agriculture or recreation,” Cutting says. In doing an exemplary job of regulating the industry on a state level, people in North Dakota hope to avoid the intrusion of the federal government in their backyard. “We don’t want the EPA (environmental protection agency) to come into North Dakota. We need to do it ourselves,” Bercier says.

Biggest Challenges

Although a great deal of attention is being paid to respecting the environment as it relates to the drilling and extraction processes, many people feel that the quality of life and their surrounding environment is suffering because of the damage being done to the basic infrastructure. “We have growing pains in terms of infrastructure,” Blau says. The rural roads of North Dakota are taking a beating from the big trucks that service the rigs. It’s estimated that 9,000 trucks pass through Williston every day on streets not designed to handle that degree of heavy traffic. Fixing the region’s roads would cost around $900 million and take 20 years, according to a study done by the Great Plains Transportation Institute. “One of the big challenges is all the roads, bridges and sewer systems in the Bakken,” Vollmar says. In addition to traffic and the air pollution it causes, residents also worry about the housing shortage, rising prices and increased crime rates caused by the booming population. “For the most part, the citizens of North Dakota are not as concerned about hydraulic fracture as they are about housing issues and truck traffic,” Cutting says.

Despite opposition from environmentalist groups, additional pipelines, such as the Keystone XL, would go a long ways to clean the air, reduce noise pollution and in general help preserve the infrastructure in North Dakota. “One of the larger impacts on both the oil industry and western North Dakota as a whole is the lack of pipelines,” Cutting explains. “Increased pipeline capacity, which can be achieved through the approval of Keystone XL and other pipelines, would help get more trucks off the road and would lead to a decrease in traffic, dust, debris and wear and tear.”

North Dakotans also express concern that outside perceptions about the state’s oil and gas industry are not always accurate. “I believe that the information that is put out to the public is not data-based, but based on emotion,” Vollmar says. “We need common sense logic.” When dealing with opposition viewpoints and interference, Blau emphasizes the importance of working together to achieve common goals, which in most cases is to preserve the environment. “The key is knowledge,” he says.

Although mining in general has been criticized over the years for its lack of sensitivity to the environment, it appears that in North Dakota environmental stewardship is on everybody’s minds. State regulations, increased awareness, public pressures and commitment to the land along with good business practices have all come together to bring about focus as well as action. In the final analysis, most people can agree that paying attention to environmental stewardship is in everyone’s best interest. “It’s simply good business,” Blau says. “There’s nothing cooler than having a win-win situation by saving money and having less impact on the environment.” As a native of North Dakota who was born in the Turtle Mountains, Bercier has a deep seated passion to protect her home state. “I have a real appreciation for the land. The land is our gift,” she says.


  1. Great article. We at Quantum Industries, via our Solidifly product line, http://www.solidifly.com, continue to particpate in the environmental sector of the oil and gas industry.


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