Oil Patch Justice

Some things to catch up on from earlier reports on goings-on in the oil patch:


We reported a couple weeks ago on the case of Nathan Garber, the fellow who dumped 800,000 gallons of contaminated water down a well shaft out by Dickinson. The technical charge against him was “violation of the rules and regulations of the North Dakota Industrial Commission,” a Class C Felony, punishable by five years in prison or a $5,000 fine, or both. Well, his hearing was last Monday. Case closed. Pleaded guilty. Now, I am tempted to have a little contest here, and have people guess how many years he will spend in prison, and how much he will pay. I’m pretty sure no one knows the answer except Garber, his lawyer, the Attorney General (actually his assistant), the judge and me. Because no one in North Dakota’s vaunted news media has bothered to report what happens to a man who  dumps 800,000 gallons of contaminated water down an abandoned well. I only know because I made enough phone calls that someone finally had to tell me. Actually, I only found out this morning. I probably could have found out earlier, but duck season opened this week and I’ve been a little busy. Priorities

But I’m going out to the Badlands for the weekend, so I’m not going to be around to judge a contest, so I’m just going to tell you. Garber, who was working the well under the auspices of a company called Halek Operating, the company recently fined $1.5 million by the Industrial Commission for the same crime (more about that in a minute) actually submitted an Alford plea, which as I read about them all the time in the paper means he is not actually admitting guilt but concedes that the assistant attorney general probably has enough evidence to convict him (about 800,000 gallons worth), so he’s going to stand up and take his punishment fair and square, like a man. And that punishment is:

A two-year suspended sentence and a $2,500 fine.

He’s gone back home to Montana where he will be on unsupervised probation for the length of his suspended term—two years. Then he’s free to go, assuming he has written a check for $2,500 plus court and investigation fees, probably another grand or so. And a nice fat check to his lawyer, who deserves a nice fat check for his work convincing Wayne Stenehjem that dumping 800,000 gallons of contaminated water down an abandoned well, threatening Dickinson’s drinking water source, really isn’t such a big deal.

Well, it was considered a big deal at one point in time, even by Lynn Helms, the oil industry’s top cop and head cheerleader in North Dakota. Helms said that if the contaminated water reached the groundwater supply, it would “take years to clean up, if it even could be cleaned up.” The Dickinson Press reported in August: “The violations admitted by Halek are among the most egregious violations ever pursued by the commission,” Administrative Law Judge Allen Hoberg wrote in findings earlier this year. The groundwater in the area hasn’t been contaminated, but after evaluating evidence in the case, Hoberg found there is a “real future risk of contamination.”

I assume the North Dakota Health Department will monitor this site for years to make sure Dickinson’s drinking water isn’t contaminated. If I lived in Dickinson, or anywhere near there, I’d sure hope so, anyway.

Meanwhile, after all the headlines about how the Governor and the Attorney General and the Agriculture Commissioner and the Industrial Commission are really cracking down on these bad guys, the $1.5 million fine levied against the company, Halek, goes unpaid. I asked the Attorney General’s office this week if they are moving to collect that. Haven’t heard back yet. But here’s a little hint of what’s to come. A lawyer friend of mine says they probably aren’t going to get anything but an abandoned well, because there ain’t no $1.5 million in the bank to pay that. An abandoned well full of contaminated water which, if it leaks, is going to have to be cleaned up by the well’s new owner, I suppose.

And that, folks, is how justice is served in North Dakota’s oil patch. If there’s any news about the payment, or non-payment, of the fine, you’ll probably read it here first. And Nathan Garber will never show his face in Dickinson again. He’s nervous about the water.


We also reported a couple weeks ago about the case of the mineral lease auction of 40 acres up in the Lewis and Clark Game Management Area. This was the online auction to complete the spacing unit, the rest of which was owned by Harold Hamm, and where Hamm is ready to drill some wells. Well, the auction came and went and I didn’t report the results, because I was in the Bad Lands for a few days, and then out canoeing in Montana all last week, and then duck season, and, well, you know, I was just busy. Retirement is hard when you’re healthy enough to enjoy it.

Well, anyway, the minerals were leased for five years to a company called Beall Investments LP, for $11,610 an acre, a total of $474,954.25. A nice little chunk of change for the state of North Dakota, which will turn into a nice big chunk of change for Mr. Beall, who’s betting on a sure thing. Actually, my best guess is that Mr. Beall, who is from Texas and has close ties to the University of Oklahoma, as does his friend Harold Hamm, probably just had someone in his company fronting for old Harold, and Harold has all of it now—no partners. Because that’s how things work in the North Dakota Oil Patch.


Last Spring we were following a story about XTO energy, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil, wanting to drill an oil well at the gate of Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, now owned by the National Park Service. We raised enough hell to scare them off, but we knew they would come back, because they’ve got a bunch of money tied up in a mineral lease that they don’t want to lose. Well, XTO regrouped and this week they were back in front of the North Dakota Industrial Commission with a new plan. They’ve put together a new spacing unit and it looks like they will move the well two miles west. It won’t be at the Elkhorn any more, but now it will be at the turnoff from the main road onto the trail that goes down toward the Little Missouri River and the Elkhorn, and the nearby Forest Service campground at the Maah Daah Hey trailhead. So if you’re going to the Elkhorn in the next year or so, or going camping at the Forest Service Campground, or hiking the Maah Daah Hey Trail, be darned careful. There’s going to be a lot of truck traffic there for a while.

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