Each well, when first drilled, shoots water into the Bakken, fracturing the rock so that oil flows back. Unlike the water used to fracture Pennsylvania shale, the water here can’t be recycled because of its high chloride content, says Rick A. Ross, vice president for operations at Whiting Petroleum. But whereas Pennsylvania wastewater gets dumped in approved wells, wastewater here is pumped into another geological formation. Ross says its capacity is not a problem.
“Environmentally, the industry is very responsible up here,” Ross said. “We’re state of the art if you look at how operations work here.” He said the industry is working with the North Dakota Industrial Commission on new guidelines for pits where drilling waste is dumped.
Oil and saline water spills, while usually small, are frequent, and the state lacks the manpower, and perhaps the inclination, to crack down. ProPublica compiled data from the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources and reported that 716,518 barrels of oil and 1.7 million gallons of brine were spilled between March and July in 2011.
“It’s like a steamroller coming at you,” said Wayde Schafer, head of the Sierra Club in North Dakota. “We are trying to see what we can do about changing regulations, but it’s here and it’s kind of a mess.”
“We all need the oil. We all drive cars. We all heat our homes,” said Nelson, the rancher, explaining that he doesn’t oppose all development. But, he said, “the state is letting us down. They all have dollar signs in their eyes. They have the regulations on the books, but they are not enforcing them.”
Wasting natural gas
Even the oil industry can’t keep pace with itself. While oil companies have rushed to drill, pipeline companies haven’t been able to install enough lines to get the oil out of the area or capture the natural gas found, too.
Now the producers are getting gouged. Burlington Northern Santa Fe, owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, carries three-quarters of the oil transported by rail, often extracting steep fees. Ekstrom of Whiting Petroleum estimates that transportation has been costing North Dakota petroleum producers $13 to $19 a barrel, much more than normal.
“Keystone would not relieve all of that,” he said, “but it would have eased that number down greatly.”
At New Town, tanker trucks were pulling up to three tracks, each with a train of tank cars stretching far into the distance. Nelson, who serves on the North Dakota Wheat Commission, worries that the oil trains will interfere with trains carrying the harvest. Last year, he said, the harvest was weak, but if this year’s crop is normal there could be delays. His wife took a train across the state in June and was four hours late because of congestion on the rails.
Natural gas pipelines are needed just as badly as oil pipelines.
There aren’t enough pipelines or gas-gathering stations to capture the natural gas that is found along with the oil. So oil companies in North Dakota are simply burning — flaring — the gas. Decades ago, that was common, but today in the United States it’s virtually unheard of. Nationwide, the amount of natural gas being flared is well under 1 percent. But North Dakota is flaring 34 percent of its gas.
Ross says it’s hard to build plants to separate natural gas from its liquid components as fast as new wells are going in. Moreover, gas-separation plants and gathering systems are expensive. A small plant next to Whiting’s office in Belfield cost the company $200 million. Whiting beats the North Dakota average, but it is still flaring about 20 percent of its gas.
On July 3, the World Bank issued a report on gas flaring that called North Dakota one of the world’s worst offenders. It is responsible for a more than a threefold increase in U.S. gas flaring. If North Dakota were a country, it would rank fifth in the world in flaring, behind Russia, Nigeria, Iran and Iraq. The greenhouse gas emissions from North Dakota’s flares are equivalent to those produced by 2.5 million cars.
The gas flares can be seen almost everywhere, most easily in the evening. Drive the gentle curves of scenic Highway 1804, named for the year Lewis and Clark traveled through the area’s buttes and camped along Antelope Creek, and one can see dozens of gas flares, some of them 25 feet high, lighting up the valley like industrial campfires.