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Associated Press, Published April 21 2011

BLM to hold fracking forum in Bismarck

BISMARCK — A technology that has created an oil boom in western North Dakota and opened vast natural gas reserves nationwide won't harm drinking water sources if wells are drilled properly, regulators and industry officials said Wednesday.

Farmers and environmentalists told agency officials at a forum sponsored by the Bureau of Land Management that more oversight is needed.

The forum in Bismarck on the use of hydraulic fracturing on federal land was the first of three to be held by the agency. Similar forums are slated later this month in Golden, Colo., and Little Rock, Ark.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process that uses pressurized fluid and sand to break open oil and gas bearing rock up to 2 miles underground. The technique is credited with developing the rich Bakken shale and Three Forks formations in North Dakota. In other states, it's been blamed for endangering water quality.

The forum's moderator, Richard Ward, director of energy initiatives at the Aspen Science Center, in Aspen, Colo., said contaminating surface water or aquifers from hydraulic fracturing is as likely as "shooting a bottle rocket to the moon."

Ward told an audience of about 200 people that "well integrity is absolutely key."

"That is, to state the obvious, critical," said Myron Hanson, president of the NorthWest Landowners Association, which represents farmers and ranchers.

"Water is critical to life and the operations of farmers and ranchers," he said. "Protection should be the primary concern."

Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, said water sources are protected by thousands of feet of geologic formations atop fracking operations that can extend 2 miles horizontally.

"The only possible pathway is the well bores," he said.

The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of federal land, more than any other agency. BLM spokesman Mark Jacobsen said the agency has leased 38 million of its 700 million acres for oil and gas production drilling.

Theresa Hanley, the agency's assistant director for Montana and the Dakotas, said 90 percent of drilling on federal land involves hydraulic fracturing. The agency said 25 percent of oil drilling in North Dakota occurs on federal or American Indian land.

Don Nelson, a spokesman for the Dakota Resource Council, a Dickinson-based environmental group, called for industry to disclose the ingredients used in fracking operations.

"With disclosure comes tracking," said Neslon, a farmer and rancher who said he has had oil wells on his in land in western North Dakota since the 1950s. "Then you can find out who caused the problem and who's going to fix it."

A federal law exempted oil drillers from disclosing chemicals used hydraulic fracturing in 2005. The Environmental Protection Agency is studying the process and there are proposals in congress that would give the agency authority to regulate the fluids, which oil companies consider proprietary at present.

The EPA's study is slated to be released late next year.

Nelson said he doesn't buy the argument that companies want to keep their fracking recipes a trade secret, saying the companies could earn money by patenting the chemical concoction.

"Don't we want the every single well producing the most amount of oil?" he said.

Helms, of the state Department of Mineral Resources, said in an interview that legislation requiring oversight of hydraulic fracturing would reduce production and drill rig counts by at least 50 percent.

A record 175 rigs were drilling in North Dakotas oil patch on Wednesday. The state, the nation's No. 4 oil producer, pumped a record 113 million barrels of oil in 2010.

Tom Richmond, the administrator of the Montana Oil and Gas Conservation Board, said hydraulic facturing also is vital to oil development in that state.

"No frack, no work," he said in an interview. "You can drill horizontal wells until you're blue in the face but without fracking, you got nothing. Fifteen million barrels of oil a year in Montana would go away."