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The Dark Side to North Dakota's Oil Boom

Oil companies are spilling and dumping drilling waste onto the region's land and into its waterways with increasing regularity.

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In response to rising environmental concerns related to drilling waste,  North Dakota's legislature passed a handful of new regulations this year, including a rule that bars storing wastewater in open pits.

Still, advocates for landowners say they have seen little will, at either the state or federal level, to impose limits that could slow the pace of drilling.

The Obama administration is facilitating drilling projects on federal land in western North Dakota by expediting environmental reviews. North Dakota's Gov.  Jack Dalrymple has urged energy companies to see his administration as a "faithful and long-term partner."

"North Dakota's political leadership is still in the mold where a lot of our oil and gas policy reflects a strong desire to have another oil boom," said Mark Trechock, who headed the Dakota Resource Council, a landowner group that has pushed for stronger oversight, until his retirement this year. "Well, we got it now."

Reaching 'the Crazy Point'

Keller's office in Williston is as good a spot as any to see the impacts of the oil boom.

The tiny prefab shack — cluttered with mounted fish, piles of antlers and a wolf pelt Keller bought in Alaska — is wedged between a levee that holds back Missouri River floodwaters and a new oil well, topped by a blazing gas flare. Just beyond the oil well sits an intersection where Keller estimates he saw an accident a week during one stretch last year due to increased traffic from drilling.

Keller describes the changes to his hometown in a voice just short of a yell, as if he's competing with nearby engine noise. Local grocery stores can barely keep shelves stocked and the town movie theater is so crowded it seats people in the aisle, he said. The cost of housing has skyrocketed, with some apartments fetching rents similar to those in New York City.

"With the way it is now," Keller said, "you're getting to the crazy point."

Oil companies are drilling upwards of 200 wells each month in northwestern North Dakota, an area roughly twice the size of New Jersey.

North Dakota is pumping more than 575,000 barrels of oil a day now, more than double what the state produced two years ago. Expanded drilling in the state has helped overall U.S. oil production grow for the first time in a quarter century, stoking hopes for greater energy independence.

It has also reinvigorated North Dakota's once-stagnant economy. Unemployment sits at 3 percent. The activity has reversed a population decline that began in the mid-1980s, when the last oil boom went bust.

The growth has come at a cost, however. At a conference on oil field infrastructure in October, one executive noted that McKenzie County, which sits in the heart of the oil patch and had a population of 6,360 people in 2010,  required nearly $200 million in road repairs.

The number of spill reports, which generally come from the oil companies themselves, nearly doubled from 2010 to 2011. Energy companies report their spills to the Department of Mineral Resources, which shares them with the Health Department. The two agencies work together to investigate incidents.

In December, a stack of reports a quarter-inch thick piled up on Kris Roberts' desk. He received 34 new cases in the first week of that month alone.

"Is it a big issue?" he said. "Yes, it is."

The Health Department has added three staffers to handle the influx and the Department of Mineral Resources is increasing its workforce by 30 percent, but Roberts acknowledges they can't investigate every report.

 
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