Bombing North Dakota: What It's Like to Live Amid the Oil Boom
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Here’s how it works. First the drill descends about two miles underground. At that point the drill bit moves horizontally for more than a mile and the horizontal pipe is then perforated. High-powered compressors then pump between three and six million gallons of water, and an additional 30,000 to 120,000 gallons of toxic-laden chemical fluids, into the well at pressures ranging from 3,000 to 15,000 psi. (Federal law doesn’t require disclosure of which chemicals are used in fracking fluids and the industry won exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005, right before the boom began.) The explosive force of the chemically saturated water creates fractures in the shale rock, allowing oil and gas to flow out. Between 1,000 and 2,000 tons of sand are pumped into the newly fractured well seams to keep them from closing. The chemical mix further assists in keeping the seams open.
Because North Dakota’s oil deposits are so deep, there is less danger than in other states that fracking fluids will contaminate underground aquifers in the course of oil and gas extraction. Nevertheless, there are risks involved. As with any oil drilling, spills sometimes occur. Some wells lose pressure and release fracking fluids at or near the surface, where they can enter the water supply. Storage pits have been known to leak. “In rainy springs like we had in 2011 and 2012 the pits overflow,” Braaten says. “Plastic pit liners wear out and tear. The life of chemicals is much longer than the life of liners. Clay is not impermeable. Those wastes are going to move over time.”One of the basic problems of fracking is that as much as a third of what goes down the well bore comes back up. Western North Dakota contains thousands of waste pits from oil wells. A typical pit is 50 yards long, 20 yards wide, and 15 feet deep. It receives wastes such as drilling mud and the combination of water and fracking fluids that come back to the surface (known as “produced water” or “brine”). In April 2012, North Dakota started requiring companies to put liquid wastes in tanks for transport to “disposal wells,” but it still allows them to leave solid wastes such as drilling mud in pits, where the oil companies bury them. Watchdog attorney Braaten questions if the new law is being implemented. “I suspect that not a lot of the personnel on the rigs has changed, so it’s just a question if their employers bothered to educate them on the new rules,” he says.
An investigation last summer by the nonprofit journalism organization ProPublica, using North Dakota public records, found that more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater, and other fluids occurred in 2011 – as many as in the previous two years combined. Many of the spills were minor, but some were large, including a spill of 2 million gallons of brine that sterilized 24 acres of land.
The 1,000-spills figure includes only incidents that oil drillers report themselves. State regulators admit that many more spills and the intentional dumping of wastewater occur but go unnoticed. Kris Roberts of the North Dakota Health Department told ProPublica: “What’s the solution? Catching them. What’s the problem? Catching them.”
When leaks and blowouts occur and are reported, oil companies frequently minimize the numbers. “It’s all self-reporting by the companies,” Braaten says. “When companies report a spill, it’s always one barrel or ten, because that minimizes their responsibilities.” Braaten also says state regulators, under pressure from the oil companies and politicians, often look the other way when accidents happen. He recalls an episode in which he drove to a farmer’s field where an oil well had blown out and there was “an oil sheen all over the snow.” He called a local inspector from the North Dakota Industrial Commission. “I don’t want to get involved,” the inspector responded. Braaten then called the North Dakota Health Department. A staffer drove out to the well site. “Mother Nature will take care of it,” he concluded, then walked off.