North Dakota proposes regulations to prohibit oil companies from dumping liquid drilling waste in open pits in order to protect migratory birds; 28 dead birds found in May, June led to federal charges against seven oil companies

BISMARCK, North Dakota , September 21, 2011 () – Proposed changes to oil drilling regulations could save migratory birds, advocates say

In the wake of federal charges accusing seven oil companies with killing 28 migratory birds in open waste pits, oil and gas drilling operations in North Dakota could soon be hit with state regulations that one advocate said would change the face of the state's drilling industry -- and save a lot of birds.

The regulations, proposed by the state's Department of Mineral Resources, would prohibit dumping liquid waste in open pits. The pits -- used to dump rock chips, drilling bit lubricants and other waste while an oil well is being drilled -- can be mistaken by birds for ponds, biologists say. Birds landing in the pits are coated with oil.

The proposed state changes highlight growing concern surrounding the so-called reserve pits, which are often 15 feet deep and the size of a large swimming pool.

If they pass, said Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota's Department of Mineral Resources, they would not only alter the state's industry, but also lighten the footprint oil drilling leaves on the environment.

In May and June, 28 dead birds were discovered in such pits, prompting the charges against the oil companies.

The companies, set to be arraigned Thursday in U.S. District Court in Bismarck, are: Slawson Exploration Co. of Wichita, Kan.; ConocoPhillips Co. of Houston; Newfield Production Co. of Houston; Brigham Oil and Gas of Williston; Continental Resources Inc. of Enid, Okla.; Fidelity Exploration & Production Co. of Denver; and Petro Hunt of Dallas.

Timothy Purdon, the U.S. Attorney for North Dakota who brought the charges, has said the allegations "should be troubling to those interested in preserving North Dakota's rich heritage of hunting and fishing and to the many oil companies who work hard to follow the laws protecting our wildlife."

While separate from the federal charges, the new regulations are in line with the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that aims to protect birds migrating between the U.S. and Canada, under which Purdon charged the oil companies. The maximum penalty is six months in prison and a $15,000 fine.

North Dakota has risen to become the nation's fourth-largest oil producer, accounting for about 6 percent of U.S. production. The state produces more than 420,000 barrels of oil daily from more than 5,700 wells. It could have more than 25,000 wells drilled in the next several years, state forecasts say.

North Dakota has about 900 open waste pits, according to Helms. The pits can pose problems for people, too: Spring and summer flooding swamped almost 50 waste pits in western North Dakota, spreading a nasty brew of diesel fuel and drilling lubricants across nearby property.

Once a well is completed, companies are required to clean up the pit, and it must be covered with netting if it's open for more than 90 days. The new rules would require liquid waste to be dumped into steel tanks for later recycling or disposal. Rock chips and other solid waste may still be stored in an open pit for later burial.

The Department of Mineral Resources is holding a public hearing on the rules Nov. 1. Also proposed are incentives for companies to list the chemicals they pump underground to break up the shale rock that produces oil. Bruce Hicks, the agency's assistant director, said the rules could take effect by April.

Ron Ness, the Petroleum Council's president, said the open-pit rules would increase drilling costs and could have a disproportionate effect on small oil companies. He said the industry was willing to work with state regulators in seeking changes.

"Overall, I think we're probably headed in the direction of many of these issues," he said. "We'll look at them all and see where we think there might be opportunities for improvement."

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