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A truck barrels past a weather station and well site in Epping in Williams County, N.D. The weather station was installed earlier this year as part of an effort to provide more data to counties to help officials make decisions on road restrictions. Western Dakota Energy Association photo

Weather stations, meteorologist to help Oil Patch counties make road restrictions

BISMARCK — A meteorologist will work with Oil Patch counties to track wet weather and help them make better-informed decisions on road closures using data from dozens of weather stations going up in western North Dakota.

The effort is one of several projects for which the Industrial Commission authorized money this week. The commission is a three-member panel chaired by the governor that regulates the oil industry, among other areas.

The weather station project aims to improve operations for the numerous trucks that barrel down gravel roads in western North Dakota each day, carrying everything from sand used for fracking to saltwater to oil itself.

A good gravel road has a slight slope that drains the water off the surface, said Geoff Simon, executive director of the Western Dakota Energy Association, which is spearheading the project. Yet, gravel roads are susceptible to rutting when it rains.

“Once you have a rut, the water can’t get off the road, and it’ll get worse,” Simon said.

As a result, counties tend to close roads or issue weight restrictions when wet weather hits, so that heavy trucks don’t exacerbate the problem.

Truckers have complained that the restrictions, at times, are unnecessarily broad. Officials sometimes impose them countywide, even though the rain is falling only over one area.

That’s what prompted the energy association to work with the North Dakota Agricultural Weather Network in putting up 50 new weather stations across the western part of the state. The project should help counties better pinpoint places where restrictions are needed and where they are not, thus avoiding unnecessary delays in oilfield operations that cause the oil industry to lose money, Simon said.

Officials in McKenzie and Dunn counties recently divided up their counties into zones to further help with road restrictions.

Simon pointed to a July storm in northern Dunn County that prompted officials there to shut down only some roads based on data from the new weather stations in the area.

“They closed just one zone in the county rather than the entire county,” Simon said.

The energy association that Simon heads is made up of counties, cities and school districts in oil- and coal-producing regions of the state, and it operates a system that truckers rely on to learn about road restrictions and to obtain permits for overweight loads. The agricultural network already operates a number of weather stations throughout North Dakota and just across the state border in Montana and Minnesota.

Ten stations have already gone in, and the groups are putting up 15 more this fall. The Industrial Commission authorized a $250,000 grant earlier this year to help fund 25 more stations, and on Tuesday it approved another $60,000 to help pay for a meteorologist to work with the counties. The money comes from oil tax revenue via the state’s Oil and Gas Research Program.

The energy association has already hired the meteorologist, Jonathan Rosencrans, who previously worked with the agricultural weather network.

The weather station project has drawn praise from Gov. Doug Burgum, who said Tuesday that he would like to see thousands of stations across the state to help with other industries, such as agriculture.

“I couldn’t be more strongly supportive of this, and I couldn’t be more emphatic that it’s too small,” he said.

Salt caverns study, other projects funded

The Industrial Commission authorized funding for several additional projects this week, including a study on creating underground salt caverns to store substances such as ethane and other natural gas liquids for use by the petrochemical industry.

“It’s a necessary piece of infrastructure to keep the industry moving, so I’m glad we’re undertaking it,” Burgum said.

North Dakota officials have been courting the petrochemical industry, trying to get companies to locate facilities in the state to tap into the Bakken’s abundant supply of natural gas liquids to make substances such as ethylene, which is a building block for plastics.

The industry needs significant storage space for those liquids, according to the grant application from ATCO Energy Solutions, a Canadian company based in Alberta that will conduct the study. One place petrochemical companies tend to use for storage is underground facilities such as salt caverns, which have geologic characteristics that make them ideal for holding natural gas liquids.

ATCO will receive up to a $932,500 matching grant for the research, which could take as long as two years.

Underground salt formations are generally too thin and deep in North Dakota to be developed into caverns, according to the company’s application. However, the company believes there are several locations that could potentially work and warrant further study.

The Industrial Commission also approved funding for further research into capturing carbon emissions from power plants and storing them underground. One project will focus on injecting carbon dioxide near an oilfield to squeeze out more crude oil.