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Pioneer Drilling rig number 43.jpg

A drilling rig is seen on Jan. 6 in the Bakken oil patch.

Two recent studies cast a bad light on drilling operations in the oil patch. Industry, officials and supporters of oil exploration may not agree with the findings, but there’s no escaping the fact the studies encourage opponents of fracking.

The oil industry needs to show it’s dealing with the situations and North Dakota needs to demonstrate it’s doing due diligence. There’s room for improvement by both the industry and the state. Fracking isn't the only issue; it involves spills, pipeline leaks and more.

A Duke University study argues that thousands of saltwater and frack flowback spills in the oil patch have left toxic contamination, including radioactive soils and polluted streams, unsafe for human consumption and aquatic health. "This massive development has led to more than 3,900 brine spills, mostly coming from faulty pipes built to transport fracked wells' flowback water," Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke, told Tribune reporter Lauren Donovan. He said his researchers have been studying frack-related science for six years across the country and the number of spills is unprecedented.

The state Health Department's environmental chief David Glatt said the study only looked at spills still being remediated, not sites that have been cleaned up. Glatt told Donovan he was disappointed that researchers didn’t contact him, that he could have explained how the state has worked with companies to make sure they do things right.

Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the state's Oil and Gas Division, said new rules being developed will expand the division's jurisdiction. The rules will require bonding, more inspection and enforcement and prior notice of pipeline installation. She said the department also wants to increase diking requirements so spills are better contained. Ritter noted the rules have been in the works since the 2015 Legislature.

Nancy Lauer, the lead Duke study author, said the metals and salts in the brine spills don't break down in soil, unlike oil, and "… has created a legacy of radioactivity at spill sites."

In another study released last week, University of Michigan researchers say the oil patch is largely responsible for a global increase in the air pollutant ethane. Researchers found fossil fuel production at the Bakken Formation in North Dakota and Montana is emitting roughly 2 percent of the ethane detected in the Earth's atmosphere.

Ethane, along with methane, is a hydrocarbon that is a component of natural gas. Once in the atmosphere, ethane reacts with sunlight to form ozone, which can trigger asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, especially in children and the elderly, according to an Associated Press report. Ethane pollution also can damage crops. Ozone also ranks as the third-largest contributor to human-caused global warming after carbon dioxide and methane, the AP reported.

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The increase in ethane was discovered by chance when a sensor in the European Alps registered ethane increases in the atmosphere in 2010. The spikes in ethane were than traced to the Bakken.

Glatt says work to install and maintain equipment to capture ethane and other volatile gases before they can escape have lagged behind drilling, however, in 2015 the state purchased a specialized camera that can detect so-called fugitive gas emissions as they escape from a variety of sources. He calls the camera a “game changer” since many companies thought they were doing a good job.

The two reports reveal problems and the state’s response shows it’s working to deal with the issues. Unfortunately, the state hasn’t been able to keep up with the pace of drilling. Critics argue that the state was so eager for the oil revenue they allowed the boom to proceed without the necessary safeguards in place. The state denies this. The state needs to show it’s taking the necessary steps before the federal government gets more involved. The Environmental Protection Agency already is reviewing the Michigan study's results. A EPA spokeswoman said new clean air rules recently announced by the Obama administration to curb methane leaks from oil and gas drilling operations should also help address the ethane emissions.

The Duke study looks at problems in the oil patch, but the Michigan research examines a global issue, one that will put North Dakota under the microscope.

Clearly the burden is on North Dakota to prove it can regulate the industry in a satisfactory manner.

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