An oil well owned by Whiting Petroleum Corp. started leaking hydraulic fracturing fluid and spewing oil late on Thursday, after a blowout that company and state officials said may take “a couple more days” to clear up, according to Friday reports in Reuters.
The well lost control after a blowout preventer failed, and began leaking between 50 and 70 barrels (2,100 to 2,940 gallons) per day of fracking fluid — a mixture of generally classified chemicals, water, and sand — and 200 barrels (8,400 gallons) per day of oil, the Reuters reports said. As of Friday, fluids from the leak were being collected and trucked from the site. Whiting is maintaining that none of the liquids entered the water, though some oily “mist” did spray onto the frozen creek.
“This [leak] is a large one and also a health and human risk, it’s a big one,” Lynn Helms, the head of the state’s Department of Mineral Resources, said in a conference call.
“Pressure and control of a well is essentially priority number one for oil and gas companies.”
By Monday, it was unclear if the well had been fixed and if the oil and wastewater had stopped leaking. Calls to both Whiting Petroleum and the North Dakota Mineral Resources Department were not immediately returned.
Though the harmful effects of an oil leak are widely known, less is known about the effects of the chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process. Fracking is a method of extracting fossil fuels, coveted for its ability to increase the flow of oil or gas from a well. This is done by injecting high-pressure water and chemicals miles deep into the ground into subsurface rock, effectively “fracturing” the rock and allowing more spaces for oil and gas to come through. The tactic is generally paired with horizontal drilling.
The high-pressure water and chemical injections generally result in a good amount of wastewater, which is what Whiting’s well is leaking along with oil. The specific chemical makeup of that water is a large part of why the practice is so controversial, as public disclosure of what exactly is used in the water is largely self-regulated by the fracking companies. Thanks to laws pushed by corporate front groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), states have allowed minimum disclosure of the chemicals used in the fluid.
In North Dakota, regulations only require companies to disclosure chemicals that are classified as “hazardous substances” by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration. But, as noted by the National Resources Defense Council, OSHA does not classify all dangerous chemicals as hazardous — only those that are shown to be dangerous in the workplace.
February has not been a good month for fossil fuel accidents. On the 13th, a train carrying crude oil from Canada derailed in Pennsylvania, spilling an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 gallons of oil. On the same day, a natural gas pipeline exploded in Kentucky, setting fires and destroying homes.
Two days earlier on the 11th, 100,000 gallons of coal slurry spilled into a waterway near Charleston, West Virginia — the latest woe for a state that has been dealing with an unprecedented chemical spill. On that same day, a Chevron natural gas well exploded in Greene County, Pennsylvania.
The list goes on. On February 2nd, a stormwater pipe burst under an unlined coal ash pond at a retired coal plant in Eden, North Carolina, draining 82,000 tons of coal ash mixed with 27 million gallons of water into the Dan River — the 3rd largest coal ash spill in U.S. history. On the 5th, 12,000 gallons of crude oil leaked from a Canadian Pacific Railway train on Monday in Minnesota, dribbling oil along the tracks for 68 miles. And on the 1st, a train carrying fuel oil, fertilizer, methanol derailed in southeast Mississippi, forcing a local evacuation.
Alison Ritter of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources on Tuesday confirmed that the well was contained and under control on Friday evening at 7:45 p.m., about a day after the spill began. The department will also be conducting a “very serious postmortem” with the company.