WATFORD CITY, N.D. - As Evan Whiteford drives around the Bakken, he can easily spot pipelines with poor quality work.
"Once you notice it, you'll see it everywhere," said Whiteford, pointing to pathways of sparse or dead vegetation.
But in other areas, the former pipeliner points out past construction zones where vegetation is flourishing on the pipeline right-of-way.
"If it's good, you can drive right by it and not even know it's there," he said.
Whiteford, 34, is working to increase the number of successful pipelines in North Dakota as an organizer for the Laborers' International Union of North America North Dakota.
He monitors pipeline construction around the Bakken and documents any problems he identifies, such as topsoil that isn't being separated or lax environmental controls.
At times, the union raises concerns with the contractor, pipeline owner or regulators. The goal is to promote high construction standards to prevent spills or other problems that could put the pipeline industry at risk.
"About every landowner that's got a pipeline has got a nightmare, a horror story," Whiteford said. "You start getting too many bad players out there in the field and eventually it starts hurting the industry pretty bad."
Whiteford worked on pipeline crews in more than 10 states before moving from Minnesota to North Dakota in 2011. His family has since made North Dakota their permanent home after falling in love with the state and its hunting, fishing and other outdoor recreational opportunities.
His love of the land is one reason Whiteford became a union organizer more than a year ago to try to make a difference in the quality of the work being done.
"There is a way to do this stuff and do it right and with minimal impact," Whiteford said. "I like my outdoors, I like the land, and I don't like seeing land that's just been trashed because people just didn't care, they just wanted to put a pipeline in as fast as they could."
Whiteford and other union members attend nearly every North Dakota Public Service Commission pipeline hearing, often testifying in support of projects but at times offering critical comments.
Julie Fedorchak, chairwoman of the Public Service Commission, said the union's involvement has been helpful because they represent a large group of people who are affected by pipeline projects.
"They also offer technical insights as well that are valuable to us in terms of best practices, good construction techniques, and they alert us to issues," Fedorchak said.
But to Whiteford, the problem pipelines are typically not the ones regulated by the PSC and federal regulators, but the smaller gathering lines that have so far had minimal oversight.
"They're the ones that are the most damaging right now in this area, as far as reclamation issues, leaking, not knowing what's happening with them," Whiteford said.
The North Dakota Industrial Commission is considering new pipeline rules that would significantly increase the state's regulation of gathering pipelines. A study by the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota, which guided the rule development, found that the proper pipeline construction and installation are the best ways to prevent pipeline leaks.
The rules could take effect as early as Oct. 1. But many in the industry have advocated for postponing the new rules and discussing them in the next legislative session, arguing that the proposal goes beyond what legislators intended in the 2015 session when they set the groundwork for the new regulations.
The Laborers' International Union of North America supported the new regulations, writing in comments to the state that pipeliners who have worked in other areas often say that "anything goes" in North Dakota.
Some problems Whiteford and other union members have observed with North Dakota pipeline construction include:
- Improper handling of pipe, including not putting pipe on blocks or cones but instead putting it directly on the ground, which can damage the protective coating that prevents corrosion.
- Insufficient environmental controls to protect wetlands.
- Careless work that leads to damaging or exposing another company's pipeline.
The state Oil and Gas Division is reviewing comments on the pipeline rules and will present changes to the proposal to the Industrial Commission on June 29.
To Whiteford, the new rules are important, but only if they get enforced.
"How effectively are they going to monitor it and show up on locations?" Whiteford said. "And if they do find infractions, what are the consequences for that and who's going to follow up with that? Those are the questions I have in my mind."