The oil boom across western North Dakota is giving Americans an unprecedented supply of low-priced, domestic energy that’s spurring a thriving economy across Minnesota’s next-door neighbor.
But it’s also affecting wildlife, water quality and wild places on the prairie on a scale some natural resource experts say they haven’t seen before and that most people in northeastern Minnesota know little about.
Oil rigs are drilling up to the edge of and beneath Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and they are already pumping oil inside federal wildlife refuges, national grasslands, waterfowl production areas and state wildlife management areas — all places set aside with public dollars to benefit wildlife and recreation.
Nearly 9,000 oil wells have been drilled across the Bakken Oil Patch, mostly west of the Missouri River and north of Interstate 94, pumping 870,000 barrels — 36.5 million gallons — of oil every day. That’s up from 100,000 barrels daily in 2008.
Oil companies say they are on the way to 40,000 wells, maybe more, within a few years.
“There are oil rigs everywhere right now. I can’t imagine what 40,000 would look like,” said Dave Zentner of Duluth. “The scale of what’s going on out there is breathtaking. From an engineering standpoint, from strictly an energy standpoint, it’s amazing what they have been able to do so quickly. … But no one really knows what this is doing to wildlife, to the landscape.”
That’s why Zentner and a group of other Midwest Izaak Walton League members toured the Bakken in June, bringing along wildlife experts and a North Dakota state lawmaker. They met with local residents, ranchers, oil company officials, state and federal wildlife managers and game wardens.
On Wednesday evening, they’ll show a video and talk about what they saw, good and bad, at a public forum at Hartley Nature Center in Duluth.
Fracking far under
In addition to the national park named after the U.S. president who ranched and hunted there, the groups toured Little Missouri State Park and the Killdeer Wildlife Management Area, both of which are being drilled for oil in the midst of Badlands and mountains, among the state’s most scenic spots. Where oil is concerned, as with mining, mineral rights almost always trump what’s on the surface.
That part of North Dakota has connections to Minnesota more than just the Minnesotans who go there to hunt ducks or sharp-tail grouse, photograph birds or camp under the stars.
The sand used for “fracking” holes in the oil-logged shale rock comes from southeastern Minnesota and southwestern Wisconsin, where opponents of the sand mining say it could damage trout streams. And the oil pumped out of the shale is then transported by train or piped across northern Minnesota to refineries that make it into the gasoline we use every day.
Page 2 of 3 - Barry Drazkowski, Izaak Walton League Minnesota state president, helped lead the tour and will present at Wednesday’s video and forum. Drazkowski is a former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wildlife biologist and now executive director of St. Mary’s University’s GeoSpatial Services in Winona, Minn. He has conducted reviews of development impacts on natural areas for state and federal agencies across the continent but hasn’t seen anything quite like the Oil Patch.
“I was out there just two years ago, and what’s happened since then — the level of development in what had been a pretty quiet, rural place — is stunning,” he said. “The amount of land that’s being gobbled up for well pads alone is having an impact on agriculture and wildlife. … We stood on a viewing platform inside Teddy Roosevelt National Park and we could see oil wells, with the gas flares, as far as we could see.”
Drazkowski said the large amount of water being used and locked away is unprecedented and virtually unchecked. For each oil well drilled, some 3.5 million gallons of water is used, mixed with chemicals and sand to blast holes in the shale some 8,000 feet below the surface, releasing oil in a process called fracking that’s revolutionized the oil industry.
“The water becomes contaminated in the fracking process. But instead of it being treated and released back into a waterway, it’s injected back into a sealed well underground. It’s gone forever,” Drazkowski said. “We’ve never had a water use like that.”
Tessa Sandstrom, spokeswoman for the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said oil companies are going out of their way to minimize impacts to sensitive areas and wildlife. She said GIS mapping technology allows them to identify prime habitat, while horizontal drilling technology allows companies to move drill sites off protected areas but still gain access to the oil beneath them.
“Making sure we have minimum impact on wildlife is a huge priority for the industry,” Sandstrom said. “A lot of us, including myself, are sportsmen, too.”
She said the industry, along with state natural resource officials, has developed best management practices for drilling. Industry officials also have formed the Sportsmen in Oil Industry Forum, where conservation groups and industry leaders meet to develop efforts to bolster wildlife.
“Whiting Oil is heavily involved in the Mule Deer Foundation. And Continental has worked with Ducks Unlimited to restore a wetland there,” Sandstrom said of two of the largest oil companies in the state. “We’re working to help wildlife across that part of the state.
“The outdoors is the reason many of us live in North Dakota,” she added. “And the oil industry has allowed many of us to stay in the state or move back home to enjoy our outdoors and still have a good job.”
Page 3 of 3 - Cause for concern?
The North Dakota Chapter of the Wildlife Society, composed largely of wildlife biologists and other professionals, has warned of a landscape level change in North Dakota if proper precautions aren’t taken to preserve habitat, reduce intrusions from construction, prevent oil from spilling and keeping oil out of waterways.
The group has conducted several tours of the Bakken and found oil spills, fish kills, polluted and flooded well sites and impacts on wildlife that have often gone unresolved. In 2011 it issued a report on what should be done to mitigate the impacts of the oil boom.
“An industrial landscape dominated by oil wells, tank farms, pipelines, natural gas flares and fumes and a scarred landscape are not conducive to outdoor recreation and tourism,” the report noted. “The oil and gas industry is big business in North Dakota and contributes to the state’s economy and the energy needs of the entire country. But the oil and gas industry is also negatively affecting the other two major components of the state’s economy: agriculture and tourism, as well as our natural resource heritage.”
Some of the impacts are obvious. The western reaches of the state’s Killdeer Wildlife Management Area held 63 elk in a 2010 survey. After road building and oil drilling began, the 2011 survey showed the elk were gone.
Other impacts are more subtle. Wildlife and resource managers told members of the Izaak Walton League tour that they are now spending 50 to 75 percent of their time dealing with oil drilling, trying to mitigate damage, and that they aren’t able to get to the traditional wildlife duties they previously performed. Despite a large increase in their workload, few if any additional wildlife managers have been hired.
The Wildlife Society report added that many animals are being killed by the tens of thousands of trucks traversing the prairie day and night.
“There’s been a big increase in poaching, pollution, debris and just plain damage out there,” Drazkowski said.
In addition to letting more people know what’s going on in North Dakota, Zentner said conservation groups are trying to develop a strategy on where and how they can affect public policy to do the most good to preserve parts of the prairie.
“We need to know where we can have an impact out there,” Zentner said. “There’s no way we can stop this. But there are state and federal lands out there that taxpayers and hunters and anglers paid for that are under siege, and someone needs to stand up for those.”