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Borehole Project Q&A

By Staff | Feb 12, 2016

Borehole Project Q&A

Many Pierce County residents have questions regarding the proposed borehole project south of Rugby. On Thursday, John Harju, vice president for strategic partnerships of the Energy & Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota, met with the Rugby City Council. Harju will also meet in a special session with the Pierce County Commissioners and the public on Tuesday, Feb. 16., at 9:30 a.m. at Dakota Farms.

Before those meetings, Tribune Reporter Bryce Berginski emailed and sat down with Harju, as well as Rodney Osborne, manager, energy business line infrastructure and environment, Battelle Memorial Institute, to ask questions about the proposed borehole project.

BB: Since the story broke, what has been the reaction to the proposed borehole project?

Harju: “It’s mixed. I think there’s been very little dialog about the project as we define it, as we understand it, and there’s been a lot of, I think, unsupportable leaps to eventualities that people have conjured up, most recently, even the notion of vast conspiracies, which is absolutely incorrect. Generally speaking, if we talk only about the test, about the science, about the engineering, I think there’s a lot of interest. But again I think people are very concerned there’s some eventuality that’s prescribed as a result of even doing the test and that’s unfortunate.”

Osborne: “We understand people have questions, and we want to make sure we address their questions and concerts and get right to the facts. We want to make sure that we’re not hiding anything, we’re being completely transparent, putting the information out there that they need. But the project is absolutely focused on the science and engineering, that’s the goal of this project.”

Harju: “Maybe, really simply it’s about the science, not the site.”

BB: The Pierce County Commission has placed a moratorium on deep drilling until more is known. What are your thoughts on that?

Harju: “The moratorium is an understandable measure, and I am encouraged to see that its foundation is based on a desire for more information.”

BB: What information do you hope to convey and what do you hope will be achieved at the special Commission meeting in Rugby?

Harju: “We are very excited to participate in the special forum on the 16th. We feel that this will be a significant opportunity to present the details of the proposed project. Foremost is to convey as strongly as possible what the project is and what it is not. It is a scientific research project that will not involve radioactive waste at any time and is in no way a precursor for any radioactive waste disposal in North Dakota. In fact, depositing radioactive waste in North Dakota is not permitted under existing state law without specific legislative approval. We look forward to sharing information about this project with the public, answer as many questions as possible, and convey the scientific and engineering nature of the project.”

BB: Can you describe how the borehole test process, if approved, would work?

Harju: “There are two major components of the borehole test. The first is to successfully drill a hole about 16,400 feet deep, with nearly 10,000 feet of that depth through hard crystalline rock all while keeping the borehole very straight. This will require a slow and careful approach, using a drilling rig much like those used in the western part of the state.

“The second component is the downhole testing which will develop greater understanding of temperatures, fluid chemistry and fluid movements throughout these types of very deep environments.”

Osbourne: “We have a schedule for drilling the well, somewhere between 5-7 months, and we have plans of the type of drilling equipment to use and the type of methods. Part of the feasibility will be as we go through that drilling, we’ll find out that this type of bit works in that type of a rock or that type of bit, this type of a drill rig versus that type of a drill rig. There are a number of tools that are used in oilfield services, geothermal and other geologic studies, and that’s where Solexperts comes in. We have plans of doing this test, we’ll gather the data, we’ll analyze the data.”

BB: What would be the possible outcomes of the test, and how long would it be before the outcomes could be known?

Harju: “A great deal of scientific and engineering understanding will result from this effort. One of the key engineering outcomes will be whether today’s drilling technology can successfully drill a hole about 16,400 feet deep, with nearly 10,000 feet of that depth through crystalline rock, and keep the hole very straight. There are a host of other outcomes, including the development of geologic testing protocols; the evaluation of wellbore isolation techniques; an understanding of the geothermal resources in this region; and unparalleled scientific insight into the ancient geologic history of North Dakota. While the stream of data collection associated with the project will begin very early, assessment of the drilling effort will take several months to ascertain.

Osborne: “There have been some concerns regarding the words ‘feasibility’ and ‘viability’ of the site and the emphasis that we have on that is that it’s the feasibility and viability of doing these kinds of tests and using this kind of drilling equipment, we’re testing the feasibility and viability of those methods, of those tools on this kind of rock. We’re not going to have any kind of a conclusion about the feasibility or viability of Pierce County for a nuclear waste disposal area, that’s not the feasibility and the viability testing. The testing is about the tools and the methods feasible for this kind of rock.”

BB: What safety concerns are present with a project of this scope?

Harju: Any of the concerns that you’d have on any drilling location anywhere. Ensuring that there’s not unfettered access to the location by grazing animals, by people, whatever that might be. One of the things that’s been contemplated would be fencing around the location just to make sure that none of that unfettered access would occur. But there are always inherent challenges and dangers associated with drilling rigs. You have a lot of horsepower, and you are drilling a very, very deep hole in this particular instance and at a diameter that’s larger than similar holes might be. There’s a very detailed set of safety considerations largely associated with the rig, and the energy on location and all those people coming and going.

“Aside from those inherent dangers one of the things that’s been contemplated is because this is a research site, because the idea is to be a good neighbor-even though it may seem like that’s not the case, we’re intending to remedy that point – we’re contemplating open houses and periodic visits by the public where they can come and take a look and see what’s happening out there. I mean, this is a world-class science project that the opportunity to do something like this for the state is really profound.

Osbourne: The site will look like a lot of other oil and gas drilling sites and, in some ways, construction sites, so the idea of the fence around the site, as John says, is not to hide, not to protect or keep any information from going out. It is to address safety. There are a lot of moving equipment pieces: forklifts carrying very large pieces of equipment, cranes, and a lot of electrical, a lot of high-pressure hoses. And it’s a great concern to have someone just walk on any construction site, whether it be this or whether it be the construction of a residence, apartment complex, anything, there’s always the concern that people just walking on-site can get hurt from all that moving equipment. We don’t want to prevent people from having access to the site, we want to make sure it’s done with their safety as foremost. We very much will encourage people to come to the site, really to show and tell, as John said. This is going to be a world-class operation from the perspective of protecting the environment, protecting the workers and protecting the visitors that come on-site.

Harju: The typical personal protective equipment would be required, likely to include proper coveralls, hard-hats, steel-toed boots…

Osbourne: Hearing protection, safety glasses, it’s a very loud, loud site.

BB: I suppose you’ll need winter gear as well?

Harju and Osbourne: (laughs)

Harju: Certainly winter protective gear is a key element of any North Dakota project of this magnitude, especially given the intended start date would be in the fall.

BB: When the story initially broke, it was said the [borehole] project had a $35 million price tag, and now people are hearing it is an $80 million project. Where do these numbers come from, and which would be more accurate? Is there a breakdown of the associated costs?

Harju: “The $35 million is for the single 8.5 inch borehole, while the $80 million would also include? the 17 inch borehole. Progression (and funding) to the 17 inch borehole would be contingent on early success with the smaller diameter borehole.

“We are currently working on detailed breakdowns of what local spending would look like, and plan to be able to discuss same at the public meeting.”

BB: Also when the story broke, it was said that the EERC was involved, as were Solexperts of Switzerland, Schlumberger, the Battelle Memorial Institute and others. If the borehole project is approved, what would each group be bringing to the table?

Osborne: “Battelle has a number of contracts with the federal government, including the United States Department of Energy, so we felt we could take the lead on a huge project like this. And EERC is our partner in this, they have the unique and great capabilities of being the lead research institute in North Dakota. They have the local knowledge of the geology, so it was just a perfect fit. We still need to have people who have the equipment and the scientific experiment to gather the data and that’s why we reached out to Schlumberger, one of the world’s leading oil field service companies to help gather all of the equipment and the crews to actually do the drilling and perform some of the testing. A key part of the experimentation, the data gathering on the project is being able to perform experiments inside the well that talk about the strength of the rock and any water that’s present, what its flow characteristics are. Solexperts has a lot of experience in collecting that data, they have the unique kind of tools to be able to collect that data.”

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