By Nicholas Leingang | The High Plains Reader (Fargo, ND)
Since 2005, energy debate in the United States has been polarized by so-called “unconventional” fuels. These energy sources require additional technological and energy inputs during extraction and refinement — in North Dakota, this means millions of gallons of chemical mixtures, advanced drilling equipment, and high-pressure injections collectively known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” These developments have turned the Bakken Shale formation into one of the most profitable oil ventures in the country, drastically altering the social and environmental makeup of the state.
In discussions surrounding fracking in the state, many environmentalists concentrate on the negative consequences of extraction. However, that is only part of the story – the negative impacts of extraction are compounded by the social, political and infrastructural elements that compound the problems of extraction. This project will examine some of these connections.
The chemicals and processes of unconventional extraction
Although the toxicity of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are a major concern, the public does not have access to comprehensive reports of chemical usage. Still, the incomplete data that have been gathered by scholars have highlighted that many compounds used in fracking have serious health and environmental consequences.
Chemical mixtures used throughout unconventional extraction have a variety of necessary roles: in the drilling muds they “reduce friction … shorten drilling time and reduce accidents.” After the well bore has been completed, encased in cement and perforated, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals are forced into the formation. This fracking fluid flows through the minute perforations, creating fissures that extend up to 10 meters outward from the well bore. Then, the original fluid, along with oil, gas and other compounds from deep formations rush back to the surface, called “flowback.”
A majority of the injected fluid is water, about 3-7 percent is sand, and 1-2 percent is a proprietary chemical composition. For an average well, this equals roughly 100,000 gallons in chemical products that serve a variety of purposes: mineral dissolving agents, biocides, corrosion inhibitors. Many of these chemicals have severe adverse health effects in humans, as studies (e.g. Colborn et al. 2011) have highlighted.
Flowback can account for as much as 90 percent of the original fluids and includes original chemical mixtures as well as compounds from deep formations, such as “metals, dissolved solids (e.g. brine), organics, and radionuclides that occur naturally in deep groundwaters.” Many of these have been linked to animal and human health issues near fracked wells.
The environment and unconventional extraction
Effects on the Land
In other areas of the country, e.g. Pennsylvania, extensive shale gas development has introduced thousands of miles of forest “edge.” This fragmentation drastically reduces the amount of livable area for many native plants and animals. Similar ecological observations have been made for the introduction of “grassland edge.” Grassland fragmentation and the creation of new edge has been linked to changes in insect systems, increases in nest predation of grassland birds, decreases in bird abundance and species diversity, shifting habitat size for mule deer, and an overall decrease in biodiversity. The “grassland”/“woodland” analogy also extends to carbon sequestration. A recent project published in American Prospect highlighted that the deep-rooted grasslands hold roughly the same amount of carbon as the world’s forests – which further compounds the problems facing our state. The Dakota Prairie National Grassland is the largest grassland reserve in the nation, containing the state’s “largest representation of threatened and endangered species,” as well as (save for oil and gas) the largest carbon reserves. It also overlies a significant portion of the Bakken Shale.
Though expected ecological disturbances will alter grassland ecosystems, unexpected and accidental releases of fluids and hydrocarbons are among the greatest risks. In North Dakota alone, Kunetz reported “over 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids in 2011” — twice as many as in 2009 and 2010 combined (2012). Throughout the county, the amount of oil spilled in 2013 totaled more than the previous 40 decades combined, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Plus, our previous estimates on the long-term impacts of oil spills now appear to be stark underestimates, with long-lasting impacts that range from species extinction to birth defects in animals. Some of these spills are massive – for example, a December 2012 spill by Newfield Exploration Co. released “106 barrels of crude, 166,000 cubic feet of natural gas and 80 barrels of salt water per hour” for nearly 48 hours. A Tesoro spill last year near Tioga totaled over 20,600 barrels, one of the largest in state history.
In addition to spills, illegal disposal of waste materials has emerged as a primary concern for safety and health. Radionuclides buried deep in underground formations are brought to the surface with oil and gas, and filtered out from wastewater in “oil socks.” Though the level of radioactivity is well below, for example, waste from a nuclear reactor, the waste poses long-term risks if not disposed correctly. Plus, estimates suggest that wells in the state may produce over 27 tons of radioactive oil socks every day. In the past year alone, multiple illegal dumpings of radioactive material has cost the state tens of thousands of dollars for clean-up.
Thus, although technically not a part of standard operating procedures, land damages must be included in the assumptions we make about the cost of the oil boom. Approximately 90 percent of North Dakota’s land is used for agriculture-related purposes; the possibility of soil contamination has direct economic and cultural consequences.
Implications for Water Quality and Supply
Shifting land use patterns affect not only animal populations, but also other ecological processes. For example, the clearing of a tract of grassland increases erosion caused by high wind and rain, while decreasing the amount of snow and rain that can be caught in brush and absorbed into the ground to recharge water supplies. The removal of grasses also forestalls their ability to filter chemicals out of water before it is absorbed into the ground; this exacerbates problems of chemical contamination resulting from drilling operations.
Fracking is increasingly linked to water pollution resulting from normal operations. Contrary to assertions that water in deep formations could not migrate, Mooney, as well as Adams et al., found that unknown “karst connections” in deep geology can create paths from fracked formations to groundwater supplies. In the absence of such pathways between deep formations and aquifers or land surface, fracking chemicals can also migrate throughout formations, much in the same way shale oil and gas do. The changes in pressure and composition wrought by fracking need “3 to 6 years to reach a new equilibrium,” during which reestablishment fluid migrates throughout formations. Depending on these variables, chemicals could migrate to aquifers in anywhere between 10 to 10,000 years. Indeed, a survey of well water near fracking sites found an increase of thermogenic methane (i.e. produced in geologic formations rather than by methanogenic bacteria) with proximity to wells. A January report published by the Associated Press found that Texas, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio have found hundreds of cases of fracking-related water contamination, concentrated mostly in Pennsylvania.
Effects on Air Quality
Unconventional extraction also increases air pollution from extraction-related activities, such as traffic, construction of drilling rig, etc. These proceedings create CO2, as well as other criteria pollutants like SOx, NOx and ozone. However, additional risks to air quality due to unconventional extraction have been recorded. For example, flaring—the burning of “uneconomic” natural gas from a well instead of capturing it—is common in unconventional wells and increases criteria pollutants in the vicinity around the drill floor. Furthermore, volatile compounds like inorganic arsenic and benzene can evaporate from storage pits, creating toxic air leading to health complications.
The greatest concern arising from unconventional extraction — in terms of time scale, geographic spread, and intensity — is climate change. While the increased availability and usage of unconventional natural gas has reportedly decreased U.S. CO2 emissions to levels not seen since the late 1990s, this statistic is misleading. First, while natural gas may be a lower-carbon fuel compared to coal and oil due to its low carbon-to-hydrogen ratio, it is nonetheless still a carbon-based fuel and will compound climate change; not to mention that the methods of gas capture from unconventional gas wells allow fugitive methane emissions, partially negating the fuel’s mild greenhouse effect. Second, investment in infrastructure for capturing, transporting and using natural gas creates path dependence. This only deepens our reliance upon fossil fuels, while also sacrificing geological stability and ecological health, at a time when seeking alternative energy sources is the only way to ensure environmental, economic and political stability in the coming decades. Third, and most importantly for North Dakota, the benefits of fracking insofar as they relate to climate change is applicable only to shale gas—which is commonly regarded as a mere byproduct of unconventional extraction in the state.
As a greenhouse gas (GHG), methane is substantially more potent than other GHGs, such as CO2, especially in the short term, although methane’s atmospheric residence time is on the scale of decades, compared to the centuries-scale of CO2. A majority of natural gas is collected at the surface, but a small amount of “fugitive methane” can escape into the atmosphere. Depending on the ratio of fugitive emissions, methane’s greenhouse impact can be substantially larger than from the fuel alone. Indeed, a recent study conducted by Brandt et al from Stanford has confirmed that natural gas, as industry practices currently exist, is as bad as or worse for climate change than gasoline and diesel fuels.
It is important to recognize “low-carbon” does not imply that shale gas is a long-term solution to fuel needs, as it still requires substantial inputs, land modifications, and other ecological sacrifices which compound the negative impact of the oil’s GHG emissions. Unconventional extraction in North Dakota is undertaken almost exclusively for oil at this point, and a significant amount of natural gas is flared at wells due to insufficient infrastructure for capture and use. Thus, localized ecological and social sacrifices are borne by North Dakota residents without the accompanying reduction of GHG emissions that residents of other states point to as justification for unconventional extraction, while at the same time deepening reliance upon fossil fuels that makes shifting to renewable energy resources more difficult.
Feedback from Oil-Related Development
Resource extraction also implies secondary and tertiary environmental effects — impacts that are driven by the expansion of a resource economy: expanding road, water, and energy infrastructure to meet new demands; new houses, businesses, and public amenities to accommodate population influx; and the associated increase of traffic volumes, population densities, and migration to and from oil fields. Thus, when considering the environmental implications of the current oil boom, focusing merely on the process of extraction will offer limited insight into aggregate impact.
Environmental Effects Associated with Rapid Industrialization
A 2012 report compiled for the ND state government by KLJ, an engineering firm, estimated that the state will see a population growth of 25 percent by 2025, with a related increase in demand for electricity, water, public amenities, etc.
Likewise, water demands levied by extraction operators are substantially higher than most areas of North Dakota can accommodate. Governor Dalrymple has responded to this need by offering permits for “no-cost access to river waters,” which will annually remove over 27,000 acre-feet of water from the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea. Such an increase in water demand is likely to add strain to an already precarious water supply system, which in recent years has seen reduced levels due to drought. With increased climate-related weather phenomena on the horizon, such a demand on North Dakota’s waterways could significantly reduce the volume and speed of water flow. Second, the development of such massive water infrastructure will require significant developments in the form of roads, pipelines, water treatment facilities, etc. While increased access to reliable water may benefit irrigation and stabilize water rates for non-industry users, even the highest post-oil boom population estimates will not need such an amount of water. Plus, in the present, irrigation has taken a backseat to industrial demands. Granted, current mechanisms for water transportation also have negative impacts, as many operators have turned to private companies that offer water delivery services via ground transport. This has added congestion to transportation infrastructure already burdened by the industrial advance into rural North Dakota, such that some state agencies have suggested pursuing partnerships with water deliver companies to create dedicated lanes for water supply vehicles.
Transportation, then, emerges as another area of concern. Towns like Williston, one of the oil boom’s hardest-hit cities, has seen almost 10 percent annual population growth in the past five years, and any visitor can see the stress on roadways and housing. Stretches of road between oil boom cities, snaking through countryside, are filled at all hours of the day with 18-wheel semis moving water, drilling equipment, and construction materials; during the busiest times of day congestion can slow traffic ten times over. Towns like Watford City, with a 2010 population of under 2000, are ill-equipped to handle such massive transportation demands, and the town’s two stoplights cause miles of backed-up traffic daily. Gene Veeder, director of McKenzie County Economic Development, highlighted the problems with expanding infrastructure: when traffic volumes are constant, there is no “good time” to fix deteriorating or insufficient roadways, and expanding infrastructure causes an immediate but temporary strain on an already strained system. This related influx of vehicular activity exacerbates problems air pollution, especially in areas near agricultural land or protected grasslands.
Just as transportation volumes are directly related to population and industrial activity, increases in population require more housing. Statewide, the number of new housing units has at least doubled annually since 2009, with a projected 3500 new housing projects completed in 2012. While some cities, such as Dickinson, began limiting housing construction to levels that will be sustainable in post-boom times, most have such an acute shortage of housing that long-term forecasting is not a consideration. For obvious reasons, seeking temporary solutions to the problem of a huge but temporary population is prudent; however, many of these fixtures are poorly placed and could degrade land that will again be used for agriculture in the future, not to mention the problems arising from questionable access to emergency services and other public amenities. According to local officials, most permanent homes are “good quality” – but they come with the same environmental problems of many single-family homes constructed in North Dakota: low energy efficiency, poorly sourced construction materials, substantial building waste—which are compounded when happening at such a quick rate.
Stayed tuned for part 2 of the series next week.