Wild, Wild West Resurrected in the Bakken
North Dakota spills prove oil industry is unchecked, unregulated
Published: Wednesday, October 30, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 31, 2013 03:10
A farmer from Tioga, N.D., happened upon a seven-acre oil spill in the middle of his wheat field two weeks ago. As I heard this news, I hate to say the first thought that came to my mind was “I told you so.” Honestly, in this case, I never wanted to mean it. The picture of six-inch fountains of oil flowing straight out of the ground and into a field is the stuff of environmentalists’ nightmares, and it’s made even worse by the fact that anyone could have seen it coming.
Indeed, it has always been a matter of when, and not if, when it comes to the oil industry spilling its toxic products. Folks in North Dakota should never have questioned if the oil that is flowing so quickly from their wells would spill, they should have asked themselves where it would happen first.
And so, when one farmer’s harvest was halted by oil-coated tires on his combine and the two-week-old, 20,000-barrel spill in his field was exposed, we finally had our answer. Since then, it has been revealed by the Associated Press that nearly 300 spills have occurred in North Dakota alone over the past two years—none of which were ever reported to the public.
North Dakota currently has around 17,500 miles of pipeline collecting and shipping oil from point to point. Almost 2,500 of those were installed last year alone—approximately the same as the distance from New York to Los Angeles.
Though most of these pipelines are fairly small—none reach the scale of the famous Trans-Alaska Pipeline, for example—there are so many of them, that spills are bound to happen on a regular basis. And though these spills are subsequently small in size—one spill that occurred last week in Divide County was estimated at around seven barrels—they could still have a detrimental effect to their immediate surroundings.
The upshot of the 20,000-barrel Tioga spill was that none of the oil was able to contaminate the area’s water supply, thanks to a thick layer of clay soil that runs through the region. Clay is so dense that liquids cannot percolate through it as they can through more porous soil types, effectively sealing any ground water or aquifer below.
But the fact that the Tioga spill occurred over a naturally occurring clay lining was merely the luck of random chance. That same 40-foot clay lining does not cover all of North Dakota’s water resources, and a spill in an area without natural protection could endanger both surface and ground water sources, endangering the health of both wildlife and humans.
That seven-barrel spill in Divide County, for example, occurred near a well pad adjacent to a wetland. Contaminating a wetland not only ruins the water and soil that support its plant and animal communities, it also potentially contaminates drinking water sources. Many wetlands serve as aquifer or ground water recharge areas—places where surface water flows underground—and contaminating their water would be to contaminate the water that many North Dakotans drink from.
Greater regulation of the oil industry is called for in North Dakota. For the sake of its land, its wildlife and its people. Three hundred oil spills should not be hidden from the public, regardless of their size or implications. Any oil spill has the potential to harm the environment and the people that depend upon it to live their lives.
The state government needs to hold the oil industry accountable even before these oil spills happen. It needs to be inspecting and approving all new oil infrastructure that is installed, and it needs to be continually checking and certifying aged infrastructure.
Oil development in North Dakota is going to happen. Indeed, it is already happening at a scale that was inconceivable only five years ago. But if it must happen, then it should be done carefully, safely and with respect for the environment and the citizens of North Dakota.
In a world where development of wind energy is slowed down by people who complain about the extra noises that they make, why is it so difficult to get people to take action on 300 instances of environmental poisoning?
Nathan is a senior majoring in landscape architecture. Follow him on twitter @nwstottler.