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State officials concerned over rise in Fort Berthold flaring

File Photo: Flares and lights from oil wells dot the horizon on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, just over the Missouri River from New Town, North Dakota November 1, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Cullen/File Photo

FORT BERTHOLD, N.D. — Flaring on Fort Berthold Indian Reservation increased for the third month in a row, raising concern with state officials.

"You see a real problem developing on Fort Berthold," said North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms during the department's monthly report on oil production data Friday, Aug. 11.

While the capture, rather than burning off, of natural gas at well sites statewide was at 91 percent, it was only at 79 percent on trust lands and 81 percent on fee lands, Helms said.

"Up until three months ago, it was matching the statewide numbers but, beginning in March or April, you started to see them fall seriously behind," he said. "It's pulling the statewide average down quite a bit."

This becomes a problem as caps on statewide flaring go into effect Nov. 1, and, at the current rate, it will be bumping up against those maximums allowed.

Three Affiliated Tribes Chairman Mike Fox said he has no doubt that flaring has gone up on the reservation but he also believes that previous numbers have been misleading, not taking into consideration certain wells and skewing flaring numbers to look better than the reality.

Fox said the tribe has been trying to end flaring on its lands through its policies but those have mostly gone ignored by oil companies.

"We have a tribal law that companies have one year, similar to the state, to flare to give them the opportunity to connect to oil pipelines," he said. After that year, companies are supposed to pay royalties on what they're flaring.

Helms said the tribe has been really good with its own pipeline permitting process but blames the issue on difficulty getting federal approval for construction of gas transmission pipelines. He said there are two significant gathering lines that were held up by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs approval process. After three years, one was just recently approved for a right of way this year. The other remains in the lurch.

One bright spot is a proposed new gas processing plant southeast of Watford City to be built by Arrow Field Services, according to Helms. The company gave notice of plans for a 200 million per day facility to the DMR but it still has to file for a permit from the North Dakota Public Service Commission.

The company hopes to start construction next spring, Helms said. When complete, it will take in gas from the western third of Fort Berthold.

"This would really relieve stress in the Mandaree district," Helms said.

Fox said he has no doubt there are delays at the federal level and the tribe is doing its best to work through the federal rules. He suggested one way to speed up the process of development in Indian country is to give the tribe more control over its lands, creating both improvements to pipeline permitting and flaring numbers.

Fox said he thinks the state flaring mandate will help, but deference to tribal policies would have companies looking for ways to get gas to market sooner in order to avoid paying royalties on flared gas.

"We want to see the ending of waste of these very valuable resources," Fox said.