I am sick in my heart at what I have learned and come to realize the last couple of weeks about the future of western North Dakota. Two weeks ago, there surfaced a report prepared by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department last summer on the potential impact of oil development on wildlife in western North Dakota. It was first reported on a blog, and then in a woefully inadequate story in the Bismarck Tribune. Strangely, it has been ignored by the rest of North Dakota’s news media. The report was compiled, but never published and never distributed to people in positions to react to what is going on, on behalf of our state’s wildlife.
I have read the report. It says, in an introduction, “The mission of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department is to protect and enhance fish and wildlife populations and their habitat for sustained public consumptive and appreciative use . . . This report (provides) a technical look at species specific impacts and potential mechanisms for mitigation.”
The 13 Game and Fish Department employees who authored the report outline the purposes of the document as identifying impacts associated with oil and gas activities on fish and wildlife, and those individuals who use those resources, assessing the cumulative effects of oil and gas development, and defining “possible methods of offsetting impacts associated with the oil/gas industry, with an emphasis on what is necessary to ‘mitigate’ the impacts associated with oil activities.”
There follows an in-depth look at what has happened in other states with similar wildlife and habitat which have already experienced this kind of rapid development, and how that might translate in North Dakota. That is the scariest part of the document, and I won’t detail it here. I really, really want you to read the report, but I’ll summarize it this way: In the not too distant future, western North Dakota could be toast. My words, not theirs. But an accurate summary, I think, by any lay person reading this document. The toll on wildlife will be devastating. Hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing opportunities will be severely curtailed. The tourism industry will be crippled. And the quality of life we cherish here will be severely diminished.
The report is dated June 2010 on its cover and says it was “submitted to Director Terry Steinwand,” but it was then set on a shelf and not released to the public and, at least to my knowledge, its recommendations were never acted on. Who’s to blame for that is the subject of some speculation. Certainly, in the end, the director of the Game and Fish Department is responsible for doing all he can to deal with any issue that arises that threatens our wildlife. That’s his job. From reading the report, it is obvious that what is going on in western North Dakota is the single largest threat to our wildlife resources since the glacier. The Game and Fish Department Director should be dealing with that. But the Game and Fish Department Director answers to a Governor who appoints him, and to the Governor’s Chief of Staff, who directs appointed officials to carry out the Governor’s wishes. If, and I stress if, the Governor or the Governor’s Chief of Staff gets in the way of action on an issue like this, the Director has to make a tough choice. At first blush, it looks like the Director made the wrong one.
Critics of our former Governor, John Hoeven, are quick to rush to the microphone and put the blame on him because he has spent the past ten years with a laser focus on the need for the creation of “good paying jobs” (and much of the last few years taking credit for North Dakota’s booming economy). Stifling a negative report on an industry which has delivered beyond his wildest dreams might be an accurate charge. But not one anybody is going to prove, since the Game and Fish Director has figuratively fallen on his sword on this one.
Here’s what John Hoeven is guilty of–if guilty is even the right word: He has opened wide the doors to North Dakota to the oil industry. But standing right behind him, just inside those doors, cheering as the industry drives through with its drilling rigs and trailers and water tankers, (and fat wallets) have been another 600,000 or so willing North Dakota co-conspirators, weary of studies and stories about the depopulation of the plains, the death of small towns and the closing and consolidation of rural schools. Instead, U. S. Senators and Congressmen, elected and appointed state officials, Legislators, mayors, county and city commissioners, township officers, indeed, almost all North Dakotans, are now puffing up our chests in newspaper and national magazine and network television stories about our state having not only a balanced budget but a billion dollar surplus, while our neighbors in every direction are raising taxes and cutting services. We are ALL guilty of THAT.
We’re in the Easter season, a time when the people of this mostly-Christian state reflect on sinners and saviors, a time when we bow our heads and confess our sins and ask forgiveness. Some of us invoke the words of the “Confiteor,” which I remember from my altar boy days, as our prayer seeking forgiveness for those sins, which include “what I have done, and what I have failed to do.”
Well, speaking for myself, what I have failed to do is walk outside those doors I have helped open to the oil industry, and say to them “Wait, before you come in, I want you to promise that you will be good stewards of the land on which you are about to leave a giant footprint. I want to talk to you about North Dakota values, and the fragility of our land and water, and all the creatures that walk on it, fly above it and swim in it. I want my state’s concerned scientists, who we have hired to watch over our land for us, to walk with you on the land you propose for your drilling site, and tell you it is the right spot, and that the path you will take to get there is the best one. I want you to assure me your company will hire your own inspectors who will know what is best for our land and our people, our plants and animals, our air and water, and who will diligently guard our interests as well as advocate for yours.”
I know those are the things “I have failed to do.” I fear that most of us have failed to do them. And so I cannot lay all the blame for not being diligent at the feet of our politicians. Because these days, a friend of mine says, instead of falling asleep at night with the sadness in our hearts that we live in a dying area of the country, we North Dakotans now awake each morning with the giddy eagerness of someone who has just won the lottery, ignoring all the dangers that come with instant wealth.
The Game and Fish report goes into great detail on each species of wildlife that might be affected, and each section of the report concludes with this sentence, as if it could not be repeated too many times:
“It should be understood by all North Dakotans that the jobs and revenue associated with the O/G industry could come with a very high cost to our quality of life; namely diminished hunting and outdoor recreational opportunities through the loss of habitat due to direct and indirect effects of O/G development.”
A friend of mine who is a wildlife professional reads that statement and worries that, because the money available from energy development is so huge, and environmental concerns have so far been so glaringly absent, that North Dakota will continue down a path of ignoring, or worse yet, denying, there are any adverse impacts to natural resources until an irrefutable case is made to the contrary. That, he says, is why this report is so important. It is done by professionals, and it begins to make that case. And that, he says, is why the Game and Fish Department needs to take the lead. He is right. Additionally, this report must be read by all our leaders. It must be summarized and reported on by our media. It must be responded to by all of us. We must begin to do now, what we have failed to do so far.
Thirty-five years ago, our then-Governor, Art Link, looked out his window and saw the coal industry approaching our state, and he put on his hat and coat and went and met with them, and then, with his own scientists in government, and with his Legislature, he implemented reasonable laws and regulations that guaranteed both the success of the coal industry in North Dakota and protection of our natural resources. We revere him to this day. And yet, what he really was dealing with was a handful of coal companies, who had a handful of mines, to supply a handful of power plants. The reality was, that was a manageable task. He spoke of a time in the future when “the draglines, the blasting rigs, the power shovels and the huge gondolas cease to rip and roar” that he hoped we would be able to say we did our job in making sure they were good stewards. In reality there were less than half a dozen of those big draglines, and they are still operating today, and the coal companies are reclaiming the land behind them. With Art Link’s leadership, and with each of us doing our part, we succeeded.
What seemed like such a large task then, seems almost inconsequential now, in the face of thousands (soon to be tens of thousands) of well sites, with a road to each, in most cases where a road had not been before, and where most of the tracks were from mule deer and pronghorn antelope and bighorn sheep, not from semi-trucks and white pickups. Because the scale is so much bigger today, the task is more difficult and more urgent. We have little time to lose now.
There is an appendix to the Game and Fish report which contains some simple suggestions, from a wildlife perspective, on things we might do, starting now, to deal with this impact. It doesn’t presume to tell the oil companies how to do their business. It simply calls to their attention the science behind being a good neighbor. It says these are some of the things that any good North Dakotan would do when setting out to change the use of our landscape. This is the part of the report the oil companies themselves should read, and then come to our oil and gas experts and our wildlife experts and say “Okay, help us to be more responsible by providing us the information we need to do this.”
And at the same time, we need to give our own government oil and gas experts, our health department scientists and our wildlife officers the resources they need to work with these companies to make sure they are good stewards. Together, we can alleviate some of the impacts of oil and gas development. Sadly, I fear, no matter how much we do, it will not be enough. And so we must also provide the resources to mitigate the damage with enhancements elsewhere.
This week I drove through Bad Lands oil country with a friend and had my eyes opened. We drove a long stretch through an area with extensive new oil development and didn’t see a single hoofed animal. And then we drove past that area into an as-yet undeveloped area of the Bad Lands, and there were several small herds of pronghorns enjoying the sun on a fine Spring day. And I thought that, when I got home, I would try to make up for some of those sins of “what I have failed to do” by at least writing about this. That’s a start. Now I need to call my Game and Fish Department and urge them to get to work. I need to offer to help. I need to tell you to do the same thing. We need to do this so that, as Art Link said “those who follow and repopulate the land (will) be able to say, our grandparents did their job well. The land is as good and, in some cases, better than before. Only if they can say this will we be worthy of the rich heritage of our land and its resources.”
Art, it may be too late. But we’re going to give it a try.
Here is the list of the Game and Fish Department employees who contributed to the Research Project on the Impacts of Oil and Gas Development on North Dakota’s Natural Resources. We thank them and applaud their efforts. They are heroes. We hope their work has not been in vain. Following this list is the appendix to the report with their suggestions on how we might begin to deal with the impact of oil and gas development on North Dakota’s natural resources.
Energy Task Force
Steve Dyke, Conservation Supervisor
Dave Fryda, Missouri River System Fisheries Supervisor
Daryl Kleyer, District Warden Supervisor
Jeb Williams, Wildlife Resources Management Supervisor
Brian Hosek, Geographic Information Systems Specialist
William Jensen, Big Game Biologist
Sandra Johnson, Nongame Biologist
Aaron Robinson, Upland Game Biologist
Fred Ryckman, District Fisheries Supervisor
Bruce Stillings, Big Game Biologist
Michael Szymanski, Migrator Game Biologist
Stephanie Tucker, Furbearer Biologist
Brett Wiedmann, Big Game Biologist
Potential Mechanisms or Tools to Help Alleviate Oil/Gas Impacts
There are a plethora of ways to reduce impacts from oil/gas development (Sportsmen 2010). They range from seemingly simple steps such as keeping vehicles and equipment clean and free of weed seeds to more complex concepts such as using remote monitoring on well pads. The ideas put forth here are fairly ambitious large picture mechanisms that if implemented would result in meaningful impact reductions.
- Co-locate multiple wells on one site. Current technology allows directional drilling for a distance of up to 2 miles horizontally. Assuming that mineral leases were not an obstacle, well pads could accommodate up to 4 wells and provide 8 section spacing. This would greatly reduce the number of well sites, associated roads, power lines, etc.
- Encourage different oil companies to share minerals (joint minerals) on 640 acre and 1280 acre spacing. If companies were more agreeable to joint minerals, fewer wells would be required.
- Encourage well sites that pipe the raw product (oil, water & gas) to a centrally located “separation” facility. Pipelines could be placed in the road right of way. This would greatly reduce daily traffic such as saltwater and oil tankers.
- Promote underground electrical lines where possible.
- Encourage oil companies to use electronic monitoring technology and/or surveillance cameras to reduce or eliminate daily maintenance trips. Maintenance trips could be reduced to every other day or every three days if more remote monitoring were used.
- In sensitive areas where ground water or surface waters (wetlands, creeks) are present, or in erosive areas where stability is an issue, oil companies should capture the cuttings and drilling fluids in a closed loop system and haul it away to an approved disposal area.
- Encourage directional boring of utilities and pipelines in rugged areas or in crossing drainages and wetlands.
- Require testing of production water prior to its use for de-icing roads.
- Encourage oil companies to “unitize” wells to allow for co mingling of production.
- Discourage pads and roads from being located on native prairie and woodlands. Often pads are located on land of lesser value (grazing land) than cropland.
- Provide access to oil companies to obtain NWI (National Wetlands Inventory) maps or maps designating wetlands, especially temporary and seasonal wetlands as often companies are putting roads and pads in wetlands that they are not even aware of.
- Encourage the Oil and Gas Commission to increase personnel to complete inspections of existing wells. It currently appears that the majority of staff are working on new wells and older wells are not being inspected. Itâ€™s likely that numerous small scale problems are occurring without being reported.
- Require native grass seed on new roads, especially native prairie.
- Utility corridors should be established to utilize the same routes to the degree possible. Currently there are pipelines being routed all over the landscape taking the most direct route with little thought being given to reducing impacts to habitat.
Mechanisms or practices to offset impacts by oil/gas development
- Implement projects that maintain and/or enhance habitat to sustain or reestablish optimum wildlife populations (juniper control in bighorn sheep areas, native grass plantings, wetland restoration).
- Preserve unique habitat through purchase of conservation easements (developing easements along river systems, grasslands easements on tracts of native prairie).
- Acquire crucial/critical habitat when acquisition represents the best option for sustaining this habitat (sagebrush steppe, riparian areas in the Yellowstone confluence).
- Improve coordination and consultation with the energy industry through addition of staff (are (federal) PR/DJ funds being put to their intended purpose as increasing staff time is spent on processing energy related development work).
- Fund research to document population level impacts of energy development. A goal of this research should be to determine the point at which continued incremental or piecemeal development causes unacceptable declines in fish and wildlife populations.
In carrying out the aforementioned aspects of habitat maintenance and preservation, consideration should be given toward establishing an access program on lands where habitat improvement/maintenance is implemented. The program could be fashioned after the Department’s PLOTS program.