Trust earned, respect given

Project Changed the Environment

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
The PNR-1WD during drilling, with the town of Poplar water tower in the background. Photo by Chrisa Tyrrell, Fort Peck Tribes, Office of Environmental Protection
The PNR-1WD during drilling, with the town of Poplar water tower in the background. Photo by Chrisa Tyrrell, Fort Peck Tribes, Office of Environmental Protection

It started as a “technical” situation, nothing more. A problem to be corrected. A challenge to be conquered.

It led to something profound. A group of people who learned to trust, and a scientist who developed a deep connection with the community.

A critical project phase of high concern that didn’t just successfully end, but that ended successfully.

That’s what happened at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana, to a group of residents concerned about having safe drinking water, and to AAPG member Michael A. Jacobs, a geoscientist with Pioneer Natural Resources USA in Midland, Texas.

His project, simply enough, was to evaluate the geological setting of a highly saline groundwater contaminant plume and to build and design a plume capture and remediation system for the 426-acre Biere #1-22 Aquifer Restoration Project Site at the East Popular Oil Field in Montana, on land controlled by the Assiniboine and Sioux at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation.

But what happened and what was accomplished are two different things.

Personal Best
Michael Jacobs
Michael Jacobs

After discerning there was indeed a problem, Pioneer committed $6 million dollars to plug an abandoned well that was leaking highly concentrated salt water into the shallow aquifer that is the sole source of drinking water to area residents.

For Pioneer, however, committing money, was just one part of the problem – and in many ways the easiest to overcome.

More difficult, according to Jacobs, was forming the trust between organizations that don’t always trust each other – or, at the very least, haven’t always trusted each other’s motivations, especially with all the competing interests of public, private and indigenous concerns.

Jacobs, who has been with Pioneer for 12 years, says the coming together of those entities was not only the key to the project’s success, but also the point.

“I think that this project is a model project,” he says, alluding to how the team had to include the views and agendas of a diverse group of organizations, including agencies from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes and the state of Montana.

Jacobs said not only his company but all of the organizations involved participated in an extraordinary data sharing effort, working side-by-side over the course of the past two years conducting field work and providing technical expertise and interpretations.

“A number of town hall and tribal executive board meetings and team technical meetings were held in which the progress of the project was discussed and questions were taken and addressed,” he said, adding that the meetings themselves were handled in different offices across the country.

Jacobs says the company, the tribes and the different organizations weren’t the only ones who experienced a new perspective.

“I have to admit that my personal motivation in this project was at first purely scientific,” he said. “I was driven by the challenge of unraveling the geology and understanding the hydrologic regime of the Biere Aquifer.”

But then, he said, as the project progressed it went far beyond the purely scientific realm.

“After meeting the local folks and getting to know them my priorities and motivations became more personal,” he said.

“I wanted the project to be successful and one that would have a beneficial result of restoring the damaged aquifer as much as we could possibly and technically achieve.”

Do the Right Thing
Fort Peck Map
Fort Peck Map

The project started scientifically enough, when the USGS in the early 1990s began studying widespread brine contamination in the area. The study revealed a number of potential sources.

Pioneer became involved in 1999, Jacobs said, when the company was informed that in 1986 a well that the company inherited was not properly plugged.

“Basically, the real story of the project ramped up in 2006 when Ed Hance transferred to Dallas from Pioneer’s Argentina office to take over the HSE department and asked me to take a look at the project,” he said.“Being an experienced hydrogeologist and a past exploration geologist as well, I looked at it as I would any other prospect.I grabbed every well log and every piece of information, published and unpublished, and began working the geology from scratch.

“As I made my maps and cross-sections I began to realize that the Biere brine plume wasclearly definable within a discrete water-bearing channel and was separate from other gravel channels in the area,” he continued. “The discovery that this channel was both identifiable and discrete made it an ideal candidate for a restoration effort.

“After presenting these findings to management it was agreed upon that this project was not only feasible but the right thing to do.”

The project specifically included a 7,600 injection well, 10 brine extraction wells, more than 15,000 feet of two-inch and 5,080 feet of four-inch SDR-7 poly flowline, as well as two brine gathering systems with five-500 barrel storage tanks and three 250 barrel brine/crude storage tanks.

The system started in August 2008, is 90 percent operational and is currently removing approximately 3,500 barrels (147,000 gallons) of brine from the aquifer. To date it has removed over 12.5 million gallons since it began operation. Once the system is 100 percent operational, he says, it should be running at around 250,000 gallons a day.

“The aquifer will respond immediately to the restoration,” he said. “However, the process will most likely take up to 15 years to restore the aquifer to significant beneficial levels.”

The Secret of His Success

At the AAPG annual convention in Denver, Jacobs will be presenting not just the project’s technical aspects or just the specifics of the restoration activities in cleaning up oil field brines, but also the benefits of multi-agency cooperation in environmental stewardship – and how that kind of cooperation and dedication leads to success.

Aside from learning, he says, that working in extreme cold and adverse weather conditions can be very challenging – especially for a West Texas geologist – Jacobs admits something more basic.

“I would have to say that one thing I learned, geologically speaking, is that fluvioglacial systems can be challenging to work on … I don’t know that I have ever encountered a more complex heterogeneous depositional system than this.”

More importantly, he says, “I think the town learned, through public meetings and sharing of information, that the situation may not be as immediately threatening as previously thought.”

And then Jacobs wants to say something else, something about the people of the Fort Peck Reservation and the special relationship that formed – and it has little to do with the Department of Interior’s Environmental Achievement Award in 2008. It has to do with the members of the tribes.

“These folks are deeply spiritual, and their spirituality is deeply rooted in their environment and the resources.”

And keep in mind, this is coming from a man who has spent the past 25 years as a geoscientist while working for NASA at the White Sands Test Facility, Coastal Oil and Gas and Kerr McGee, to name a few.

“Environmentally speaking,” he mused, “I would not hesitate to say that these people are the original environmentalists. And you can quote me on that, also.”

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