Environment | National

Native Sun News: State seeks tribe's help with energy impacts

Correction: Due to an error in posting by Indianz.Com, the dateline of the story incorrectly placed Spearfish in the wrong state. Spearfish is located in South Dakota.

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

SPEARFISH, SOUTH DAKOTA –– Government leaders in North Dakota want the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation to help them tackle the impacts of the Bakken oil boom, a top executive of the North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties told Native Sun News on May 2.

The Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation, home of the Three Affiliated Tribes, overlaps five North Dakota counties, four of which are among the state’s 18 oil and gas producers.

“When it comes to regional planning, as a whole, Fort Berthold makes up a huge chunk of land, so we’d like to work with them,” said North Dakota Association of Oil and Gas Producing Counties Assistant Executive Director Brady Pelton. “Hopefully, we can identify those people who are in tribal government and just people active in the community who want to see positive growth and development,” he said.

Pelton was in Spearfish to take part in the 2012 Black Hills Bakken Conference May 2-3, while the Three Affiliated Tribes prepared for the MHA Nation’s 2nd Annual Bakken Oil and Gas Expo May 8-9 at New Town, N.D.

Including the petroleum extracted from the Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota ranks third among states for production. It contributes 9 percent of the U.S. total, according to Williston-based consultant Laura Erickson.

Texas ranks first in oil production, followed by Alaska.

Until recently, North Dakota was tied with California. But after outpacing it, North Dakota is expected to produce more than Alaska by year’s end, said Erickson, owner of Williston, N.D.-based Plains Energy Technical Resources LLC and one of several speakers who addressed some 200 people, including five state legislators, attending the conference.

Three Affiliated Tribes Business Council Chairman Tex Hall has called the bonanza a “tidal wave of oil and gas” and “a modern day gold rush,” noting that “Both good and bad come from such an oil boom.”

Under a 2008 oil and gas tax-sharing agreement between the tribes and the state, North Dakota has collected some $167 million, and the MHA Nation has collected approximately $93 million, according to the tribes’ tax director, Mark Fox.

The boom has spurred development of Thunder Butte Refinery, Hall notes. It is expected to be the first refinery built in the lower 48 states in 40 years, “which will allow us to utilize our own oil and gas instead of shipping it off and then buying it back,” Hall says.

However, he adds, “We have to maximize the good, because as we have learned in the past, the boom will not last forever.”

The business hub of the development, Williston, earned the title of fastest-growing town in the country from Forbes magazine in February.

According to academic experts and corporate and government representatives at the Black Hills Bakken Conference, the boom in western North Dakota will last about 30 years more. In that light, the tribes have instituted environmental and civil motor vehicle codes in addition to the tax-sharing agreement. A Roads Task Force attends to funding formulas and jurisdictional issues, and the MHA Nation hired several officers to set up its Highway Patrol Unit.

Erickson puts the number of drilling rigs currently operating at 209. Each rig generates about 120 jobs and traffic of an average 1,000 semi-trucks, according to Pelton. Williston has one intersection that clocks 28,000 semi-trucks and other vehicles every day.

“It is just phenomenal the activity going on in Williston right now,” Erickson said.

“We have 42,000 trucks out on those roads, so they’re all torn up.” The state government has declared all of western North Dakota a construction zone “so people can make it through this boom alive,” she said.

The state Legislature stopped short of approving signs warning of fines for discarding bottles of urine along the roadways. But North Dakota officials, estimating road crews are splashed by them 20 to 40 times a year, invested $15,000 to outfit maintenance equipment with shields, according to RoadsideAmerica.com. Pressure from solar heat buildup in sealed bottles can cause explosions. Equipment blades can toss and break the receptacles in midair.

However, the high pressure necessary to achieve the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that releases the underground stores of hydrocarbons from their rocky beds is by far the greatest risk in the Bakken and underlying Three Forks oilfields, according to Tioga, N.D., geologist Kathy Neset, president of Neset Consulting Service Inc. Drillers pump the fracking fluid into the rock with 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of pressure, she noted.

Massive amounts of fresh water are used along with sand and chemicals to free the oil from the rock and bring it to the surface, with the resulting capture of a maximum 8 percent of the petroleum in the Bakken formation, she said. Most of the liquid is disposed in the Dakota formation because few other reuse or recycling options have been discovered, she added.

Neset welcomed scrutiny of the water concerns in the interest of due diligence. A nationwide petition by the nonprofit Environment America has collected 40,000 signatures opposing hydraulic fracturing, arguing that it generates millions of gallons of toxic wastewater daily.

The Bakken experienced about 1,000 spills last year, double the number in the previous year, Erickson said. “In addition, about 30 reserve pits overflowed.”

She said the management and regulation of the thousands of well bore holes has prompted the North Dakota Industrial Commission’s Oil and Gas Division to expand its staff from 20 to 53 employees in the last few years.

With 27,000 jobs available in the Bakken, but almost no housing for workers, transients are living out of their cars, speakers commented.

“A process to formulate a long-term comprehensive plan” to deal with the boom impact is the object of the Vision West North Dakota Consortium, said Pelton, whose association is a member.

The MHA Nation is a member, too, but remains to take an active part. “There’s time yet,” he said. The hearings and public participation for the planning process will continue through September.

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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