A Confidential Fracking Well Named Ron Burgundy Is Leaking In North Dakota

CREDIT: Shutterstock

oil well rig drill west

CREDIT: Shutterstock

An oil well near Tioga, ND hasn’t stopped leaking oil since local emergency officials were notified of the spill on Friday. But because the well is under a confidentiality agreement that makes some of the well’s information a secret, details such as the spill’s aren’t being released to the public.

The well, which is named Ron Burgundy (yes, really — specifically, Ron Burgundy 3-23-14H, as it’s one of three Ron Burgundy wells owned by the same company) is owned by Denver-based Emerald Oil. The spill has been contained with berms and, as the AP reports, trucks are bringing the excess spilled liquid to disposal sites.

Alison Ritter, spokesperson for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, told ThinkProgress that because of the well’s confidentiality, only a few things about the well could be released to the public: the well’s operator, name, file and identification number, location (in coordinates), and the date that the company’s confidentiality agreement lifts. In Ron Burgundy’s case, it’s August 4, 2014. On that date, Ritter said, information about the size of the spill can be released to the public.

But Ritter said in certain cases, that confidentiality agreement doesn’t prevent important information from being released to the public. If a spill ever was deemed by the Department of Mineral Resources to be a health or safety threat — something Ritter said was considered on a “case by case basis” — the department would notify the state Department of Health and Department of Emergency Services, as well as emergency services in the county where the spill occurred.

“It’s important to point out that just because a well is in a confidentiality status, it doesn’t mean the public would not be informed in an emergency,” Ritter said. “Should an incident progress to where health or human safety were at risk, we do have authority to notify emergency agencies to protect the public.”

In the case of the Ron Burgundy well, emergency services were notified because, as Ritter said, due to “the nature of the incident, the risk was there” for the spill to constitute a health risk. So far, however, the spill doesn’t pose a risk to health or safety.

Ritter said confidential wells are common in North Dakota — 18 percent of the state’s oil and gas wells are confidential, and her agency publishes a list of them on its website. She said most well operators in the state apply for confidentiality status for their wells at the time of permitting to protect information on production and other “proprietary” data.

Jack Ekstrom, Whiting Petroleum’s vice president of government affairs, explained the desire for well owners to seek confidentiality status to the blog “the Barrel” in 2012:

“If you have a significant completion, and there is acreage available, you don’t want that particular completion to be made public until you have leased as much acreage as you possibly can around it,” he said.

He also had a simpler reason, though — “because we can.” In North Dakota, as the Barrel article points out (and Ritter confirmed), all requests for confidentiality are approved without any requirements for well operators to justify why they should be granted confidentiality. Other states allow confidential wells as well, but some are stricter about the wells’ requirements than North Dakota is: Wyoming, for example, announced in 2012 that from then on, well operators must provide “adequate technical and other justification” to back up their requests for confidentiality.

The news of North Dakota’s oil leak comes just a day after the AP reported that thousands of high-priority fracking wells had gone uninspected by the Bureau of Land Management in recent years. It also comes in the midst of a crude oil boom in North Dakota that’s already led to many spills — some high-profile and some completely unknown. In February, a fracking well blowout spilled several thousand gallons of fracking fluid and oil, and last year, a report found that almost 300 oil spills went unreported in North Dakota in the previous two years.