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North Dakota Looks to Extend Pipelines Through Tribal Land to Reduce Natural Gas Burn-Offs

While North Dakota takes steps to limit the volume of natural gas that is being burned off, or “flared,” in its rapidly expanding oil fields, the problem, which has caught the attention of Congress, is far worse on the state’s American Indian land — where regulation is more difficult.

Last week, the North Dakota Industrial Commission announced it would force producers to restrict oil production if they could not meet reduction targets for burning off natural gas. Gov. Jack Dalrymple called the new policy “a dynamic shift in the way regulators approach reducing natural gas flaring.”

Oil companies burn off natural gas venting from their wells when they don’t have processing plants or pipelines to carry the gas away. The rapid rate of North Dakota oil exploration in recent years has outrun pipelines and resulted in a dramatic increase in flaring, which is 30 times more common there than in Texas, where both pipelines and regulations have been established for decades.

“We’ve got to be able to develop the infrastructure,” Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said recently. “We cannot do that without the permitting of the pipelines and the gatherings system to do it.”

That permitting process can be particularly complicated on tribal lands, which fall under the jurisdiction of multiple federal agencies.

Companies burn off more than half of the gas produced from the 743 oil wells on the Mandaree section of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in the western half of North Dakota — twice the average on state and federal lands in the rest of the state.

Bisected by the Missouri River, Fort Berthold is home to members of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, known as the Three Affiliated Tribes. The reservation is now dotted with hundreds of wells, connected to deep lateral borings that extend horizontally for more than a mile under tribal soil. Since 2011, oil production on the reservation has doubled to more than 170,000 barrels a day, making up about 17 percent of North Dakota’s total. Because the installation of natural gas gathering lines has not caught up with the expansion in drilling, the flaring rate has soared.

Oil companies blame tribal right-of-way laws, topography and duplication of federal agency oversight for delays in getting permits for lines to gather the natural gas.

Like other states and tribes, the government of the Three Affiliated Tribes recently revised its right-of-way laws to allow gas lines to come within 700 feet of structures, opening up new opportunities for routes that had been blocked by a previous half-mile buffer. But unlike on state lands, those lines still require approval from several federal agencies.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., introduced a measure (S 2132) this spring to expedite the approval of pipelines in right of ways on tribal lands, which he said hold nearly one quarter of all American onshore oil and gas reserves.

“Tribes have called upon Congress and the administration to assist in finding a way to tap into that potential,” he said.

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