North Dakota gets fracked over



I could tell you about the out-of-control drilling boom in North Dakota, or you could see it for yourself.

From outer space!

The picture at the top of this post — taken by satellite of the United States at night — reveals an amazing truth: The gas flares in and around tiny Williston, North Dakota, now burn as brightly, and are as visible from space, as major U.S. metropolitan areas as Dallas or Denver, to its south. What’s going on here, and what does it mean?

“The reason: the area is home to the Bakken shale formation, a site where gas and oil production are booming … Most of the bright specks are lights associated with drilling equipment and temporary housing near drilling sites, though a few are evidence of gas flaring.”

If you’re thinking this is not good for global warming, you would be right:

“However, due to insufficient natural gas pipeline capacity and processing facilities in the Bakken shale region, over 35 per cent of North Dakota’s natural gas production so far in 2011 has been flared or otherwise not marketed,” the IEA says on its website.

“(It is generally better to flare natural gas than to vent it into the atmosphere because natural gas – methane – is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide),” it adds.

Still, as The Financial Times notes, there are widespread concerns over flaring, not only because it wastes natural gas but also related to greenhouse gas and pollution.

That the bright lights of once sonambulent North Dakota are visible from space is an apt metaphor for the state’s status as a supernova of America’s energy boom — and everything that comes with it. That means a flood of money, but also a tide of environmental carelessness and neglect. And there is also a surge of other unintended consequences — a few of them good, many of them troubling.

Uninsured, injured rig workers have overwhelmed North Dakota’s health care system:

WATFORD CITY, N.D. — The patients come with burns from hot water, with hands and fingers crushed by steel tongs, with injuries from chains that have whipsawed them off their feet. Ambulances carry mangled, bloodied bodies from accidents on roads packed with trucks and heavy-footed drivers.

The furious pace of oil exploration that has made North Dakota one of the healthiest economies in the country has had the opposite effect on the region’s health care providers. Swamped by uninsured laborers flocking to dangerous jobs, medical facilities in the area are sinking under skyrocketing debt, a flood of gruesome injuries and bloated business costs from the inflated economy.

The problems have been acute at McKenzie County Hospital here. Largely because of unpaid bills, the hospital’s debt has climbed more than 2,000 percent over the past four years to $1.2 million, according to Daniel Kelly, the hospital’s chief executive. Just three years ago, Mr. Kelly added, the hospital averaged 100 emergency room visits per month; last year, that average shot up to 400.

The New York Times is going even deeper this week with a cover story in its Sunday magazine about what the oil rush has meant for North Dakota. Here’s a telling excerpt:

One of the more curious aspects of oil development in North Dakota is that the people making arguments against rampant growth, environmental degradation and the messy business of extracting oil are somewhat few and far between, proverbial voices in the wilderness. Probably the loudest of these is John Heiser, a fourth-generation North Dakotan rancher and part-time park ranger who lives near Grassy Butte, and who has been railing against the pace of the boom from the start. Last February he wrote in The Bismarck Tribune that the state’s politicians were not hearing what “everyday people out here are saying — that is, stop the oil madness wreaking havoc with the land, wildlife and Western heritage we’ve long cherished.” Not long before, the Crosby Journal editor Cecile Krimm called the region an “economic disaster area,” citing swamped sewage systems, crumbling roads, dizzy rents and labor shortages as reasons that officials ought to be trying to brake a runaway train.

The Times cover also calls North Dakota “The Luckiest Place on Earth.” But is it? Or is it just the latest weekend bender in America’s long, health-hazardous addiction to oil and other fossil fuels. For the people of North Dakota, what will it look like when the wells start running dry, when the state is quite literally fracked over? And what about the rest of us, fighting off rising seas and a cycle of crippling droughts and floods as North Dakota pumps more and more greenhouse gases into the night sky. We can see North Dakota from space…but when are we going to see the light? 

(Photo illustration by NASA/NPR)

For more information about North Dakota’s gas flares and their visibility from space, please read:

To read the New York Times report about the medical impact of North Dakota’s fracking boom, check out:

Also check out the New York Times cover story on the North Dakoya dsrilling boom:

 © Smith Stag, LLC 2013 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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