BISMARCK — The North Dakota Industrial Commission on Monday, Nov. 25, authorized a pilot project that will shoot natural gas back underground to try to squeeze more oil out of the Bakken, a process that could become widespread across western North Dakota if it’s successful.

The process, known as “enhanced oil recovery,” already is done in old oil fields by injecting them with carbon dioxide. The technology has not yet been proven in newer wells created when companies drill horizontally deep underground through shale rock.

Hess is proposing the project to target newer Bakken wells near Ross in Mountrail County.

State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms told the Industrial Commission that the company plans to inject a proprietary foam and natural gas underground, rather than carbon dioxide.

“They think that by doing that, they’ll be able to build pressure more rapidly and force gas into these very small pore spaces in the Bakken,” he said.

The project will take place over two years.

The oil industry has talked for years about cracking the technology for enhanced oil recovery to succeed in the Bakken. If Hess’ project works, Helms anticipates information about the process to spread “very quickly” throughout the oil industry.

“That alone would take care of the flaring issue that we have in the state, if it comes about,” he said.

Flaring, which occurs when oil companies burn off excess natural gas at well sites, hit an all-time high in North Dakota this summer amid pipeline and processing constraints.

Hydrogen sulfide

Helms also told the commission that while hydrogen sulfide presents “a growing problem in the oil fields,” it might lead to an opportunity to create a product, such as a fertilizer, for use in agriculture.

Hydrogen sulfide also is known as “sour gas.” It’s a component of natural gas found in the highest concentrations in older oil fields, but it’s also showing up in newer oil wells as companies complete larger fracking operations that extend into neighboring rock formations with more hydrogen sulfide.

The gas is toxic if it’s inhaled, and it’s normally handled at a processing plant after it’s extracted at a well site.

But lately, amid an oversaturated global market for sulfur, processing companies in North Dakota have been looking to get out of the hydrogen sulfide business and have been rejecting gas with too high a concentration. That leaves oil producers in a bind.

“We’re going to have an issue, potentially, with companies wanting to flare that gas,” Helms said.

Burning hydrogen sulfide converts it into sulfur dioxide, an air pollutant.

The issue came before the Industrial Commission on Monday because one Bakken producer, Enerplus Resources, is seeking an exemption from state flaring restrictions for temporarily flaring at its wells since its gas was rejected this summer for too high a concentration of hydrogen sulfide.

The company has since installed sulfur treatment equipment at well sites, Helms said.

He indicated he’s eager to collect information from the company over the next two years on how well the equipment works. He also sees potential to collect sulfur from the well sites and use it in agriculture, where sulfur is still expensive despite the global oversupply.

That idea intrigued Gov. Doug Burgum.

“I would be more inclined to support the exemptions if I knew that we were going to be moving constructively toward either knowledge or solutions, particularly if you think this has the potential to show up more than it has in the past,” he told Helms.

The commission authorized the exemptions for Enerplus on the condition that the company participate in future research related to potential uses of hydrogen sulfide.

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Abandoned well rules

The Industrial Commission also advanced a lengthy series of proposed changes to oil and gas rules, which include new requirements aimed at preventing more abandoned wells.

Some aspects of the rules strengthen requirements for bonding, which offers financial assurance that money will be available to plug and clean up a site if a company shirks its responsibility to remediate a well once it is done operating.

For example, they give the state authority to require a company to put up a higher bond if a well remains classified as “temporarily abandoned” for more than seven years. The rules also require that abandoned wells sold by one company to another must be fully bonded by the purchaser.

The regulations must undergo a review by the state attorney general’s office as well as the legislative Administrative Rules Committee before they are finalized.