Impact of North Dakota energy boom may hurt Texas firms



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Posted on November 8, 2011 at 11:10 PM

Updated Wednesday, Nov 9 at 9:13 AM

NORTH DAKOTA — At night, the Badlands of North Dakota don't just wrap themselves in steely blues and drip with bloody reds. They burn with the fires of natural gas, in a place called the Bakken Shale.

"It puts that region, in North Dakota in the Bakken Shale, with the flaring, on par with Iran or Kazakhstan,” said Dr. Michael Webber, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Bakken Shale produces both oil and natural gas.

Because oil is a liquid, it can be shipped out. But you can't ship natural gas; it needs a pipeline. And there just aren't enough of those yet.

So, while as little as one to two percent of gas is flared off in Texas, in North Dakota that number is 30 percent.

Wayde Shafer of the Sierra Club of North Dakota said state regulators are simply overwhelmed.

"To continue to let the oil development outpace the protection, and the monitoring, and the safeguards for the environment and our communities, I think, is a crime,” Shafer said.

As a result, the rural and rugged Badlands area is now nearly overrun with heavy truck traffic and temporary housing for oilfield workers.

But things have grown so fast in such a short period of time, they're starting to get some unwanted attention for all the gas they're burning and wasting.

Dr. Webber said oil and gas producers in Texas are concerned the emissions and waste of the Bakken could lead to federal regulation of an industry that is regulated by states, not by Washington.

"It think, generally stated, the natural gas flaring problem in North Dakota - which is a problem on a pretty big scale - is going to invite all kinds of scrutiny, maybe regulation, maybe protests, who knows how that could have negative impacts on Texas,” he said.

The drilling, burning and handling of gas is even evident in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, once one of the most serene, darkest, and wild places in America. The Park Service is deeply concerned about the impacts of drilling.

"I get a lot of comments from visitors," said park superintendent Valerie Naylor. "I got one just yesterday. He said he would not be back to the park because of all the oil wells he heard while he was camping in the back country."

In response, major pipeline companies are working nearly around the clock to capture and sell the gas.

A company called ONEOK is currently building three huge gas processing plants.

"Our investment is going to be in excess of $1.5 to $1.8 billion dollars,” said Dick Vandebossche, ONEOK’s director of operations.

The North Dakota Petroleum Council said the state adequately regulates growth, and other states, like Texas, will not be affected by widespread flaring. It's simply a matter of the infrastructure catching up.

"Once we kind of identify the edges of this thing, as we keep moving we say, 'Gotta build a new gas plant over here,'" said the Council’s executive director, Ron Ness. "Once you identify the edges you can kind of work back in to get what you need. Still don't know how big it is."

The oil and gas industry in North Dakota wants America to see its estimated $25 billion venture that’s supplying 30,000 jobs and securing the nation's energy future.

But, at night, no one in the Badlands can hide the dark side of the boom.