June 15, 2011


By Neal A. Shipman
Farmer Editor

Two weeks ago, when Divide and Williams counties shut down their roads to oilfield traffic because of wet conditions, a somewhat unusual partner stepped forward to donate equipment and materials to get the county roads fixed and reopened to traffic. That partner was the oil industry - the very same group of companies that is catching the blame for wreaking havoc on roads throughout western North Dakota’s oil patch.
Without a doubt, the dramatic increase in oilfield traffic is to blame for much of the deterioration of roads in McKenzie County and elsewhere about the patch. But this year, Mother Nature needs to share in the condition of the roads.
But what would happen if the counties and the oil industry could come up with some form of an agreement whereby the industry, which is catching the blame, was able to step up to the plate and use their equipment, personnel and material to fix up county roads before they are destroyed? Or jump in when they know that a well is going to be drilled and build county roads up to a standard that would withstand the heavy loads?
Sound like a pipe dream?
It shouldn’t be. And it is something that the counties and the oil industry is seriously considering in North Dakota. Last Friday’s hastily called meeting in Watford City to discuss the road problems in the oil patch is proof positive that everyone involved is aware of the seriousness of the problems facing the counties and the ramifications that any road closures are going to have on the state’s oil industry.
The state’s current rig count, as well as the industry’s future drilling projections alone say that the counties will never have the staff, equipment or budget to take care of all of the road issues that are being faced.
To put the numbers into perspective, currently there are180 rigs running in western North Dakota. And just to service those wells, there are approximately 10,000 trucks on the roads each day, with the majority of those trucks traveling over county roads to reach the well sites, the water depots and the waste water disposal sites. Now imagine how the volume of truck traffic will swell, and consequently what the impact on roads will be, when the industry drills another estimated 21,250 wells in western North Dakota in the next 10 to 20 years.
The impact on any county’s budget, or the state’s budget for that matter, to maintain an adequate county road system to meet that kind of traffic demand is unimaginable to anyone.
Which is why everything coming out of last Friday’s meeting was positive. The counties want help in maintaining roads and the oil industry seems more than willing to step forward and help. It should be a win-win situation.
The only fly in the ointment is going to be coming up with an agreement that deals with the liability issues arising from having private companies basically working on public roadways for a nominal fee with the counties being able to provide supervision and monitoring of any work that is done that all the parties can agree to.
But with the stakes as high as they are, it is almost a guarantee that the counties and the oil industry will be able to forge an agreement that will ensure that there will be a private/public partnership going forward to maintain county roads.