BISMARCK — A short study the state commissioned late this summer on lightning-related spills in the Oil Patch offers clarity on the frequency of the incidents and whether the type of material used in tanks is a factor, but much remains unknown.
Researchers concluded that the number of spills caused by lightning has remained steady in North Dakota over the past five years, despite the fact that the oil industry’s growth has led to an ever-increasing amount of tanks and other oil facilities jutting up out of the prairie.
The state averages nine lightning-related spills per year, with most occurring at well sites and saltwater disposal facilities, said John Harju, vice president for strategic partnerships at the University of North Dakota’s Energy & Environmental Research Center.
The issue has been getting more attention recently, as emergency responders speak out about their concerns. Year after year, they deal with fires that sometimes result from a lightning strike that causes oilfield tanks to ignite.
They have raised questions about whether commonly used fiberglass tanks are adequate, or whether pricier steel is a better material.
The study addressed that issue.
“We found no scientific data proving that tank material is a primary factor that influences lightning strikes,” Harju said.
The study involved looking at existing literature on lightning and oil patch spills, as well as conducting interviews with experts. It was relatively small in scope, as it was meant to give state officials a sense of what information exists on the topic.
Harju's comments about the study came at Tuesday’s meeting of the Industrial Commission, a three-member panel chaired by the governor that regulates the oil industry, among other areas.
Members of the commission asked a lot of questions, seeking information on the number of tanks made out of each material and how many sites have installed lightning rods or dissipators.
No one is keeping tabs on those figures.
Chad Wocken, renewable energy group lead for the research center, said spill reports kept by state agencies might indicate that a spill was caused by lightning, but further details — like what specifically the lightning hit or whether a lightning protection system was in place — aren’t often recorded.
Sites that are hit by lightning are not always manned by oilfield workers.
“What’s very common in these cases is someone made a determination that it was a lightning strike but they weren’t actually there when it happened,” State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms said. “They arrived shortly after, so they don’t have any information about which tank was struck or which was the first on fire.”
The state is revamping its spill reporting procedures, and Helms said officials involved are considering asking companies that experience a lightning-related spill to disclose additional information so that the state has better data going forward. The information could include things such as the type of material used for the tanks and whether sites hit by lightning had a protection system in place.
Researchers also looked at whether other states place lightning-related requirements on oilfield facilities and found that most do not. Just Colorado and Ohio require that companies address lightning hazards, but only in areas where their sites are near urban areas.
Harju said most insurance companies do not require operators to install lightning protection equipment, and no type of protection can claim to be 100% effective.
Gov. Doug Burgum found it “curious” that insurance companies don’t make a bigger deal out of the problem.
Given the limited pool of money the state draws from for oil-related research, Burgum said, he felt pursuing the issue further would need to come from a push by the oil industry.
“They would have to take the lead to say this is a problem they want to fix,” he said.
Helms said representatives from the oil industry will discuss the subject further at the next “technical solutions group” meeting. Such meetings are held quarterly and are facilitated by the North Dakota Petroleum Council.