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Published October 21 2010

Oil drilling already ongoing in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Rick Berg’s suggestion to drill for oil under western North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park has sparked passionate debate, but it already happened.

At least seven wells have extracted nearly 2.3 million barrels of oil from under the park’s surface since as far back as 1974, according to an analysis of the state’s oil and gas records by The Forum.

Less than a half-mile south of the park’s scenic overlook off Interstate 94, a rig pumps oil from mineral deposits that lie more than 9,700 feet beneath the park’s surface.

The well head sits atop privately owned land outside the park’s borders, but its pipes bore in a vertical bend underneath Interstate 94 into the park.

At least six other wells once pumped in similar fashion within a four-mile stretch of I-94 just south of the park, according to records from the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Department of Mineral Resources.

One of the seven wells outside the national park sits on surface land owned by the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation, of which Berg is a board member.

Six of the wells are directional wells, including the one still active. The seventh is a horizontal well.

A horizontal well drills downward and then cuts at a right angle in the ground to bore sideways into an oil deposit. In contrast, a directional well shoots in a crooked bend vertically into the deposit.

One of the wells has been plugged and abandoned, and the five others are “temporarily abandoned,” which means the well still exists but extraction is not ongoing, but could start again in the future.

These seven wells stand apart from the multitude of others in the Oil Patch because drilling is forbidden within national park lands with few exceptions.

However, the leases for these wells originated decades before the current federal regulations set in, said Lynn Helms, director of North Dakota’s mineral resources department.

That means production is allowed to continue underneath the surface of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, even when oil drilling would otherwise be prohibited.

New leases are a different matter.

“These days, park policy won’t even allow leases to be nominated under federal parks,” Helms said.

The political debate

Berg, a Republican Fargo legislator seeking North Dakota’s U.S. House seat, told The Forum’s editorial board last month that his proposal to fund Social Security included the potential for drilling under national parks such as Theodore Roosevelt.

Berg wants to add money into Social Security from selling oil leases on federal lands with untapped reserves. He stressed Wednesday, however, “My deal really is not the parks. My deal is the federal land.”

Democratic incumbent Rep. Earl Pomeroy has lambasted Berg for this specific aspect of his proposal and challenged him on it in debates the candidates had this month.

During one exchange on Oct. 11, Berg alluded to the ongoing extraction from beneath Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

He said Wednesday he’s known about it for some time and said drilling takes place in at least a dozen other national parks.

But, he added: “This whole thing was spun out of control, and it’s unfortunate. I was real clear, I thought, in our meeting: I’m not proposing any law change whatsoever.”

Pomeroy said Berg continues to back away from his proposal, which he reiterated Wednesday is a “stunningly bad idea.”

Pomeroy claimed Berg lacks understanding of both oil drilling and Social Security. He said even with horizontal wells, there would still be an above-ground impact to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Berg accuses Pomeroy of hypocrisy, since drilling has already happened beneath the park’s surface.

“If he was as concerned as he said he was about it, he should be doing things to stop the current practice,” Berg said.

Pomeroy said he was still in high school when federal officials decided more than 35 years ago to grant exceptions in these several cases. New drilling and ongoing extraction are distinctly different, he said.

“That particular well under that old agreement does not threaten our parks,” Pomeroy said. “Rick Berg threatened our parks with a much more expansive idea, where he said we’re going to bail out Social Security by drilling on federal land, including Theodore Roosevelt National Park.”

Pomeroy said Berg’s proposal would disrupt the landscape because it would require drilling additional wells.

“You cannot discreetly take billions of dollars’ worth of oil out from under national parks,” Pomeroy said. “They’ve got one producing old well. It’s hardly a precedent for what he was talking about, and it’s kind of surprising that he’s still trying to justify this bad idea.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541