Lightining strikes lead to fires, spills at Williston oil patch

Staff Writer
Devils Lake Journal

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) — Lightning strikes have caused half a dozen fires in the western North Dakota oil patch in the past three months, leading to spills of oil and saltwater, according to state regulators.

Five of the fires occurred at saltwater disposal wells and one happened at an oil well, The Forum reported. State Oil and Gas Division reports show that the spills ranged from less than a barrel to about 400 barrels. A barrel holds 42 gallons.

The spills were as close as 200 feet from a water source and half a mile from a residence, though Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter said all of the spills were confined to the well sites.

"They do appear small, but no spill is good news," she said. "But it is encouraging that they stayed to the location — that's the best possible outcome. If a spill is going to happen, we would much rather them be from something like lightning, rather than human error."

A farmer saw lightning directly strike a saltwater disposal well facility near Keene owned by Murex Petroleum Corp. on June 14, said Don Kessel, the company's senior vice president. Saltwater is a waste product of oil production.

The fire caused a spill of 380 barrels of saltwater and 20 barrels of oil, the state spill report shows. It will cost Murex about $100,000 to clean up the mess and reinstall four tanks, Kessel said.

Protecting sites from lightning strikes is something companies want to do to protect people and assets, but it doesn't make sense to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on engineering for something that rarely happens, Kessel said.

Murex Petroleum has taken some steps to mitigate strikes, such as making sure tanks are grounded and positioning buildings, pumps and tanks farther apart so that if lightning strikes, it is less likely to destroy an entire facility, he said.

The Oil and Gas Division does not have specific lightning protection requirements, according to Ritter. The American Petroleum Institute has standards and recommended practices for companies to follow related to preventing fires caused by lightning, static and stray currents.

The standards do not directly address production tanks and saltwater disposal wells, said Bruce Kaiser, president of a Florida-based company that sells lighting protection and member of an American Petroleum Institute committee that develops best practices.

"What we need to do is come up with a standard just for those tanks," he said.

Jerry Samuelson, emergency manager in McKenzie County, which has had four of the six lightning-related fires, said he is in favor of preventive measures but doesn't consider it a huge issue.