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Associated Press, Published April 12 2012

Military: Drilling shouldn't impact nuclear missile silos in Oil Patch

BISMARCK — Intense oil drilling that's honeycombing western North Dakota has not disturbed nuclear-tipped missiles buried beneath much of the same real estate that companies are targeting for crude, the military says.

But the U.S. Air Force has become increasingly concerned about the booming oil activity above ground rather than below and has been meeting with industry officials as a precaution against potential conflicts.

The Minot Air Force Base is the command center for 150 Minuteman III missiles, sunk in hardened silos across 8,500 sq. miles of northwest North Dakota.

Col. S.L. Davis, the base's 91st Missile Wing commander, said security and maintenance crews are dealing with the same issues as everyone else in the oil patch: heavy oil traffic and beat up roads.

Air Force officials met last month with oil industry officials and intend to hold another meeting in early June to emphasize the mission of the nation's nuclear enterprise and to stress that the military has the right-of-way in the oil patch when it comes to roads and truck traffic.

Davis called it a proactive approach.

“We certainly can coexist with the oil industry and their development,” Davis said.

“Obviously, the Air Force has jurisdiction when they have to move things around and the oil industry is aware of that,” said Kari Cutting, vice president of the Bismarck-base North Dakota Petroleum Council, which represents more than 200 companies in the state. “I don't think we'll have any conflicts — we're communicating how we can share that territory. We can coexist and be happy with each other.”

Davis said Air Force crews log 7 million miles annually tending to the missile field in northwest North Dakota. Though no conflicts have occurred between the military and industry vehicles, there have been crashes in recent years involving vehicles carrying missile parts.

In 2008, a vehicle carrying a rocket booster for an unarmed Minuteman III ballistic missile overturned while being transported from the base to a launch facility in northwestern North Dakota. The military blamed “driver and safety observer error” for that accident and said the public never was in danger. The military estimated it spent about $5.6 million to recover the rocket from a ditch.

A year later, a semitrailer carrying rocket engine parts from the base overturned when the driver became distracted by an insect that flew in a window and landed on the driver's back, the military said.

Beehive-like oil activity spurred by advanced horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technology has made North Dakota the nation's No. 3 oil producer, up from ninth in 2006.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a process that uses pressurized fluid and tiny particles 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.

A record 209 drill rigs were piercing the prairie on Thursday.

Davis, the missile wing commander, said the frenzy of drilling activity has caused no ill-effects to the underground intercontinental ballistic missile sites, which lie about 100 feet below the surface.

Each site is equipped with ultra-sensitive instruments that can detect seismic activity. Davis said the equipment at the North Dakota sites has recorded earthquakes as far away as Mexico and even vibrations caused by thunderstorms.

The equipment has never detected seismic activity caused by hydraulic fracturing, he said. The closest oil well that has been hydraulic fractured is more than a mile away from any missile site.

“We're pretty confident it's not having any impact,” Davis said.