Much like the coal industry in North Dakota reclaims its mines to its original condition, operators are also required to reclaim well sites, access roads and any other associated facilities. For the oil and gas industry, this process begins within one year after a well has been plugged.
After a well has stopped producing economically, the operator has six months to plug the well or get it back into production. If the well is plugged, the company has one year to complete reclamation. Plugging the well involves cementing the production and surface casing at several layers to ensure nothing may pass to the surface and cutting off the surface casing between three to four feet below the ground.
Topsoil and subsoil that were removed during the initial well construction are returned to the site and the land is returned to its pre-drilling contours and reclaimed to the best condition possible. This may include getting land into condition for crop production or grazing, or working with wildlife groups to plant native grasses or other vegetation for wildlife forage or habitat. Once the site is restored to a condition that is to the satisfaction to both the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources and the landowner, the operator may be released from a bond paid during the initial development.
According to the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, as of March 2016, 10,400 wells have been successfully plugged and reclaimed since 1981, and another 1,500 have been reclaimed but are pending final approval for bond release by the state. Less than 1% of sites require long term environmental evaluation.
In the rare case that the operator responsible for a well is no longer in existence or cannot pay to plug or reclaim a well, the well site and related infrastructure or facilities may be plugged and reclaimed using the bond and the Abandoned Oil and Gas Well Plugging and Site Reclamation Fund. These cases typically include infrastructure or wells that were built in the early years of oil development. This fund is financed by fees, permits, forfeited bonds or other moneys from petroleum companies or appropriations. All wells are bonded, a requirement that was put in place in 1953.
In addition to plugging and reclaiming wells and well sites, this fund may be used to reclaim old pipelines and associated facilities, remediate spills or incidences, paying mineral owners royalty shares in confiscated oil, and other associated costs.
Reclaiming a Well Site
|Once a well has quit producing, it is plugged and the land is ready to be reclaimed.||
The original topsoil that was removed during the construction of the well pad is returned to the site and the original contours of the land are rebuilt.
|The site is then monitored by inspectors to ensure vegetation growth.||
Once the landowner and/or state or federal agency is satisfied with the final product, the operator may be released from his bond.
Although reclamation after a well has quit producing is required by law, many companies also voluntarily reclaim unused land in the interim.
In the past, conventional vertical drilling allowed for only one well per well pad placed as often as every 40 acres, which consumed a lot of surface area. Today, advances in horizontal drilling allows a single well pad to hold multiple wells, leaving more land undisturbed in between energy corridors. Although the initial development of multi-well pads requires a larger space in the development phase, once multiple wells have been drilled and completed, companies can reduce the well pad from ten acres to five or six acres, reclaiming the larger well pad to original production or even wildlife habitat.
The use of horizontal drilling and multi-well pads has meant that just .5 percent of the surface area in North Dakota is used compared to a footprint of about 10 percent prior to pad drilling.