Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the number one method being used today to extract oil and gas. Consequently, we must be careful not to allow the drilling rigs, natural gas flares, and 18-wheelers disturb our national parks and other public lands. The current boom in the Bakken Formation in western North Dakota is jeopardizing the integrity of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I first visited the park in 1980 when it was still possible to get a good feel of what attracted the future president to that place. This summer I made a point to revisit the park on my 16-day camping trip that culminated in northern Yellowstone.
Medora, ND, was a sleepy little town when I first knew it, but that was 35 years ago. Now the town is bustling. The town’s formerly relaxing, quiet campground was next door to the park entrance and seemed to be part of the park itself. I remembered it as being better than the park’s Cottonwood campground only because it had a swimming pool and electricity at some of the sites – and now it has WiFi – so I planned to pitch my tent there again. Unfortunately, it was completely booked and noisy. I wisely settled on staying in the park, and it was fine. I could recharge my smartphone and camera battery in the nearby restroom.
Fracking has made the difference. There is more money there now, and the town can afford to advertise for more tourism, and there is even a second campground in town – packed like a sardine can. Fracking provides good-paying jobs – North Dakota’s unemployment rate is somewhere around 2%! Farmers lease some of their land to oil companies and can afford to keep on farming around the drilling sites.
President Obama’s policy of encouraging all forms of energy certainly contradicts the environmental legacy he hopes to leave. Nevertheless, Fracking has allowed the U.S. to become so nearly self-sufficient in oil that there’s talk of our exporting our oil again, which has been illegal since the oil shortages of the 1970s. Natural gas has become so abundant that its price has dropped, and since it emits less carbon dioxide than coal, it’s a logical fuel for future power plants.
The fracking method was patented by Halliburton in 1947. It requires millions of gallons of water, sand, and a top-secret mixture of chemicals (presumably highly toxic) to be blasted into the ground to crack open the earth’s rock formations. Previously, oil and gas trapped in shale were inaccessible. However, because of its obvious negative health and environmental impacts, it was illegal to be used under the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974).
Hence, when companies like Exxon learned in 1977 that burning fossil fuels was causing climate change and since there was a finite amount of accessible oil by affordable, traditiional drilling anyway, oil companies began investing in renewable fuels like wind and solar. Exxon even published the global warming studies its own researchers had confirmed. Sadly, during the “Greed is Good” Reagan Era, with knowledge of the potential of fracking, Exxon became obsessed with promoting climate-change denial.
Early during the George W. Bush administration, his co-president/ president de facto, Dick Cheney, created an Energy Task Force, holding secret meetings with secret participants. Mr. Cheney had been the CEO of Halliburton and had probably been waiting for this opportunity. The task force created the “Halliburton Waiver” that allowed gas companies to use the fracking method, exempting fracking from key provisions in most of our federal environmental laws.
“Fraccidents” are common: wastewater spillage containing toxic chemicals destroys croplands for years; surface water contamination affects livestock and other animals; fish are killed where wastewater is discharged; private well water gets polluted; and, of course, earthquakes, which “officially” aren’t related to fracking.
There other major problems with fracking. With climate change, we are seeing areas with prolonged drought. Regardless, we still see states like California, which is an environmental leader, irresponsibly approving fracking permits, which will result in millions of gallons of water being wasted. Only Vermont and New York have banned fracking. Wells for natural gas are notorious for leaking methane into the atmosphere, and methane is worse than carbon dioxide in causing the greenhouse effect. Also, the increased number trains carrying flammable fuels endanger cities and communities whenever accidents occur.
There are no fracking rigs inside the park, but I wondered if any were visible from within the park. In other words, were there any unnatural eyesores that would distract from the beauty or uniqueness for which the park exists? From the Medora Visitor Center in the park’s South Unit, I drove the paved 36-mile Scenic Drive Loop and never saw one drilling site. I even hiked up Buck Hill, the farthest and highest point on the drive and still no rigs. I was quite pleased.
To get to the North Unit, I had to drive east on I-94 and exit to go north on US-85 (total about 70 miles). It was along 85 where I saw drilling sites, on private land – not public. None were what I would call eyesores, no more so than grain silos or service stations.
I even turned off the highway several times to get a closer look. The gravel roads were well-maintained and the sites were immaculate: no trash or oil spills. The oil/gas companies posted signs, “NO LITTERING – MAKE SURE ALL TRASH IS SECURED IN VEHICLE.” Some sites were almost picturesque, being contrasted by the surrounding fields of gorgeous yellow canola. (A park ranger told me that canola was actually rapeseed but its name was changed for marketing purposes – Canola Oil sounds better than … well, it just sounds better.)
In the North Unit, I took the paved 14-Mile Scenic Drive. As I neared the end of the road at Oxbow Overlook, I finally spotted a drilling site. It was on top of a ridge outside the park and far to the west. So far away, that if I hadn’t been looking for it, I probably wouldn’t have noticed it.
For reasons of time, I didn’t get off the paved routes – no long hikes into the badlands. In 1980, I took a horseback ride to see the bison, but that was in the contiguous Little Missouri National Grassland, and I know I would have been disappointed if I had done it again: there is a drilling rig 100 feet from the site of TR’s Elkhorn Ranch, which is in the badlands between the N and S Units. But from the paved scenic routes that most tourists use, the park has yet to be compromised, and there is no valid reason for that to change.
The general scientific consensus is that we must leave 80% of all known oil reserves in the ground to head off catastrophic climate change. Burning any oil beyond 20%, we “burn ourselves up.” So there is definitely no excuse to allow fracking permits or any other drilling permits to endanger any of our national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, forests, or grasslands. They should be permanently off limits.
By David Offutt
A version of this essay was published October 4, 2015, in the El Dorado News-Times as a Special to the News-Times.