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Hunting a New Kind of Fugitive in the West

In exploring the hidden sides of the western shale oil and gas boom, the Rural West Initiative has looked at the impact of energy extraction on communities in North Dakota and Wyoming: on housing and infrastructure, strains on health care, disruption of local banks and the importance of refining state fiscal policies

With our video feature "The New Western Fugitives," we now turn our focus on a side effect of gas extraction that is literally invisible: the build-up of “fugitive” emissions that contribute to high levels of ozone gas. 

According to the EPA:

“Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ground level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.”

Along the Green River in Wyoming and Utah, we look at two basins that have some of the worst ozone pollution in the nation. They have recorded ozone levels that sometimes exceed peak conditions in traffic-choked cities like Los Angeles. Following on a lawsuit by a citizens' group in Pinedale, Wyoming, the EPA has declared Wyoming's Upper Green River Basin a "non-attainment zone" for ozone, a ruling that could carry sanctions against the industry if conditions don't improve. Further south, in Utah’s Uintah Basin, the EPA is still studying the problem, along with partners from NOAA, Utah’s Department of Air Quality, and the Bureau of Land Management. Environmentalists are frustrated with the delays and say some regulators seem to be in a state of denial.

But where does the ozone come from? Ozone creation in these areas requires two ingredients: volatile organic compounds, called VOCs, and nitrous oxides, known as NOx. Sun reflected off snow cooks the compounds into ozone, which can be trapped by a lid of warm air – an "inversion" – and threaten public health. 

We visit a gas field with an inspector from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and see just how tricky it can be to contain ozone precursors, as fumes escape from old wells, blowback from new wells, leaky pipes and valves, and from evaporation ponds where water produced from drilling is stored. VOCs sources are often elusive, and the technology used to find them is outmoded. 

We look at some promising new technologies for identifying hot spots, and visit a gas field run by the energy giant Anadarko, which is trying to get ahead of future regulation by clamping down on emissions. 

Still, the outlook is uncertain for containing ozone precursors. This winter, ozone readings in the Utah basin were again very high, sometimes nearly twice the amount allowed by the Clean Air Act. But it takes three consecutive years of data for the EPA to declare that a region has unacceptably high ozone levels. An EPA spokesman says such a declaration could not happen before 2015.

 

To follow some of our previous reporting on the western energy boom:

 

Last modified Wed, 24 Apr, 2013 at 22:23

Bakken Boom Fractures North Dakota Health Care

The emergency room at Mercy Hospital in Williston, North Dakota

The emergency room at Mercy Hospital in Williston, North Dakota

The Bakken oil boom in western North Dakota has put a tremendous strain on the rural region’s small hospitals. A declining, older population and a rapidly expanding younger, uninsured population; a major overload on emergency facilities, accompanied by skyrocketing bad debt;  nurse and staff recruitment has become much more difficult due to high housing prices and high competitive wages in the oil patch; and physician recruitment, always a problem for rural areas, has gotten worse as needs soar.

By John McChesney

Randall Pederson, Mercy HospitalI met Randall Pederson, right, in his cramped office. As I start my interview, he yawns. He’s sitting behind a desk piled high with papers surrounded by shelves,  and also piled high with papers. Pederson is President and CEO of the Tioga Medical Center, a 25-bed hospital in the town of Tioga, population around 2,000, although Pederson says it’s anybody’s guess how many people live here now. Several towns have more than doubled in size in the last couple of years. Pederson not only runs this hospital; he also serves on the town’s volunteer ambulance squad. Thus, the yawn. The squad is now making a lot more runs in the middle of the night. “They say New York City never sleeps,” Pederson says. “Well, I don’t know if western North Dakota ever sleeps.”

Like many small town hospitals around here, the Tioga Medical Center has seen a dramatic leap in ambulance runs and emergency room patients. “In 2007 we would see 600 patients in ER per year,” Pederson says. “In 2012, we anticipate seeing over 2,000. So in a five-year period, we have more than tripled our emergency room visits. We are seeing a lot more industrial accidents, major trauma, many of those involving car accidents, because there’s a lot more vehicles on the roads these days.”Many of those accidents involve a 40-ton tank truck colliding with a 5,000-pound passenger car. Those can bring several patients with horrible injuries into the small ER at the same time. The one doctor on call has to scramble to get some help. Read more »

Last modified Mon, 1 Oct, 2012 at 10:34

Boomtown Bankers in North Dakota: What to Do With All That Money?

By John McChesney

So here's a problem you would think banks would love to have: more deposit money than ever before, coming in from people reaping the rewards of the oil boom in western North Dakota. Lease payments, royalties, and money from property sales are pouring in to the small independent banks of the many small towns in the region. Why is that a problem? Because banks make money from loans, not from deposits.

Gary Peterson, along with his family, owns the Lakeside Bank in New Town. I first interviewed him about a year ago, and didn’t notice the hint of gray showing along his temples. He’s smiling as he tells me, “The amount of liquidity in the system is amazing. We’re growing at 20% a year in deposit growth, which for rural North Dakota is unheard of. Before this happened, I think a lot of bankers would have told you that one their concerns is how we going to sustain the deposit side of our balance sheet. As the elderly would leave or die, those deposits would go to their kids who are usually elsewhere. Totally different story these days, we’re wondering what to do with it, frankly.”

The story of imbalance between money in the vault – so to speak – and money out on loan is common across the region. David Grubb is President of the Bank of Tioga, an unassuming, single story building on the town’s main drag. “We’ve seen a tremendous rise in deposits. The last couple of years we’ve grown at about a 26% clip. The growth rate has been very robust, and it also causes some concern.” Grubb adds that the fed has kept interest rates so low that that treasury yields are practically zero, so there’s no haven for new deposits there.

“Causes some concern” and “we’re wondering what to do with it” seem like odd sentiments in the booming economy of the oil patch. But until a few years ago, these banks were making mostly agricultural loans to farmers and ranchers, people with whom they had a personal relationship (Read More)

Last modified Tue, 23 Apr, 2013 at 19:40

Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, the “Walden Pond of the West,” Threatened by North Dakota’s Oil Boom

By John McChesney

Note: A radio version of this story ran on NPR's Morning Edition today.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch in North Dakota is often called the “Walden Pond of the West.” But Roosevelt’s ranch today is in the midst of an oil boom that is industrializing the local landscape. Critics say a proposed gravel pit and a bridge could destroy the very thing that made such a lasting impression on Roosevelt: the restorative power of wilderness.

It’s not easy to reach the place that Roosevelt said created the best memories of his life. Over 30 miles of dirt road, then and a mile-and-a-half hike, lie between a visitor and the ranch. Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie Naylor drove me out on a Sunday. We didn’t see another person at the ranch site, which sits on the banks of the Little Missouri River. 

Naylor showed me the old hand-dug well and the ranch house’s massive foundation stones, cut from granite. “That’s what’s so special about the Elkhorn ranch,” she told me, “We don’t have anything that’s reconstructed here – we just have a site and it’s the way that it was – for the most part – when Roosevelt first found it in summer of 1884. So it’s very special.”

The long drive out here takes you across the North Dakota Badlands, which are in fact beautiful, not bad. Because they made for hard travelling, early French trappers called them so. The area is crisscrossed with ravines (called coulees), meadows at bottom, tree-lined on the sides, and bordered by gray and red walls. Their fantastical formations fracture the horizon. Naylor said the site’s isolation is its charm. “You can see and hear things that many people have never seen or heard,” she explained, “That is, a landscape without any development, or minimal and all natural sounds, birds, wind in the cottonwood trees, and that’s exactly what Roosevelt heard and wrote about while he was here at the Elkhorn ranch.” (Read More)

Last modified Tue, 23 Apr, 2013 at 19:40

Are Western Communities Getting a Fair Return on Energy Development?

From the interactive video "An Unquiet Landscape: The American West's New Energy Frontier"

With sky-high energy prices driving new oil and gas exploration in the American West, states are struggling to keep pace with critical infrastructure and revenue policies. Western North Dakota is in the throes of a raging energy boom, as hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling techniques coax valuable hydrocarbons out of long-dormant oilfields. But as towns like Williston see their populations double virtually overnight and vital farm-to-market roads crumble under 18-wheel trucks, how best to ensure that local communities can survive the onslaught, and to reap rewards that benefit the whole state, long after the boom is over?

Working with Montana-based Headwaters Economics, The Rural West Initiative has published a comprehensive multimedia report, combining a rigorous economic and policy analysis with a 31-minute interactive video documentary called "An Unquiet Landscape: The American West's New Energy Frontier." 

The video feature looks at three rural western communities at different stages of the process of energy development: North Dakota, where a recent drilling frenzy has pushed it to the third-highest oil production in the U.S.; western Wyoming, where residents are coping with air pollution and habitat destruction after a decade of oil and gas exploration; and eastern Wyoming, where residents of one of the state's poorest communities pin their hopes on a boom on the local Niobrara formation.

The video report is published in an innovative format, an interactive player that presents supplementary information at key points in the documentary.  We will be sharing the source code for the interactive player, which leverages the latest HTML5 technology, under an open source, creative commons license for noncommercial reuse.

 

Last modified Mon, 1 Oct, 2012 at 9:38

Research Paper: Benefiting from Unconventional Oil

Report: Energy Development in the Rural West

ruralwest.stanford.edu/energy

 

A research report commissioned from Headwaters Economics by the Bill Lane Center for the American West, "Benefiting from Unconventional Oil" assesses how states like North Dakota are dealing with the rush to extract valuable energy resources. Some of the report's key findings: 

  • Sky-high global energy prices and "unconventional" techniques like hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") and horizontal drilling have brought a frenzy of drilling to once-dormant oil patches in western North Dakota and eastern Wyoming.
  • Although industrial and community impacts from development of these unconventional plays are greater and more continuous than conventional oil fields, state revenue policies are not designed to provide help to impacted areas.
  • Production from unconventional wells plummets after the first year, so to maximize production, more wells have to be drilled and old ones re-fracked, creating a "treadmill" of heightened activity stretching over many years. 

"North Dakota appears to be learning on the job," says the report, "But a more consistent approach in all states that are facing future unconventional plays will need to replace the current, often ad-hoc assistance to impacted communities.".

The report, compiled by the Montana-based research institute Headwaters Economics  -- is available for download here:

Benefiting from Unconventional Oil: State Fiscal Policy is Unprepared for the Heightened Community Impacts of Unconventional Oil Plays

 

The report comprises part of a larger study of energy development in the rural west, including an interactive documentary video produced by the Bill Lane Center for the American West.

BACK TO REPORT: ENERGY DEVELOPMENT IN THE RURAL WEST » 

 

 

Last modified Tue, 24 Apr, 2012 at 17:03

Drilling to Energy Independence: Can the West Save Us from Foreign Oil Imports?

(Photo: John Amos via Flickr)

By Dustin Bleizeffer

True to the frontier attitude still prevalent here, oil and gas officials say there’s a treasure of fossil fuels in the West that will take America closer to energy independence than any plan conceived in Washington D.C.

Story Written In Collaboration With


Wyoming Politics & Policy
http://wyofile.com

While speaking to a group of energy industry leaders in Wyoming recently, Chesapeake Energy’s John Dill said his company — and other oil and gas developers — fully intends to implement their own American energy plan.

“The country has waited long enough for a national energy policy,” Dill told attendees of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority’s October meeting in Laramie. “So we’re going to take the bull by the horn and do it ourselves.”

Petroleum Consumption, Production and Import Trends (1949-2010)

(Petroleum Consumption, Production and Import Trends)

Chesapeake Energy’s plan, “A Declaration of Energy Independence,” proclaims America’s “$400 billion a year” in foreign oil imports is “fiscally insane.” Toward American energy independence, Chesapeake created a $1 billion venture fund to convert transportation fleets from gasoline to compressed natural gas (CNG), aiming at the No. 1 driver for oil imports. The company invested another $150 million in Sundrop Fuels, which is developing what it calls a non-food biomass “green gasoline.”

“We believe American energy needs to be supplied 100 percent by domestic resources,” said Dill, director of Chesapeake’s corporate development and government relations.

With a huge presence in America’s current onshore drilling boom, Chesapeake Energy is the second largest natural gas producer in the nation. It’s recent acquisitions in the Denver-Julesburg Basin and Powder River Basin are part of an industry-wide shift toward developing shale oil.

Last modified Tue, 6 Dec, 2011 at 12:16

Rural West Initiative's North Dakota Story Airs on NPR

By John McChesney

NPR carried my story on North Dakota's oil boom on Morning Edition today. Some of the characters will be familiar from my reporter's notebook from earlier this Fall. But you can hear emotion and connotation better in audio, so it's better to listen, rather than read in this case.   

The tough economy has taken its toll on most states, putting budgets deep in the red and putting people out of work.

But North Dakota has a low 3.5 percent unemployment rate and a state budget with a billion dollar surplus. That's because of a major oil boom in the western part of the state, a discovery of at least 2 billion barrels to be gained by fracking — the controversial process of injecting fluid deep into underground rock formations to force the oil out.

The find could be the largest ever in the lower 48 states. It's expected to make North Dakota the third largest producer of oil after Alaska and Texas. But many residents of the oil boom region are not singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" — they're saying "enough."

Listen to the story at NPR's website  »

Last modified Tue, 6 Dec, 2011 at 11:31

Feeling Overwhelmed by Pace Of the Oil Boom, North Dakota Residents Want to Hit the Brakes

Ag and Oil: Can They Coexist?        

By John McChesney

I should have known what it would be like here when I could not find a motel or hotel room within a hundred-mile radius of Williston, North Dakota.

Even after a year of reading about the oil rush on the Bakken field in western North Dakota, nothing had prepared me for what I found when I drove in. It seems that nearly every 18-wheeler tank truck in America is on the road here, making tens of thousands of trips , hauling water, fracking fluid, waste water, oil, and oil well condensate. Then there are the semis hauling fracking sand, gravel for drilling pads, gravel for roads, drill casings, pipeline sections, drilling rigs, huge oil tanks, and more. Dozens of small – we’re talking really small – rural towns with one main street dot the area, and those trucks rumble through the towns at all hours, creating monumental traffic jams and deep potholes.


Oops! Still Learning to Turn.

Tankers by the hundreds blanket huge lots on the edges of towns. On the two-lane roads linking towns, you stare up the tail end of the tanker ahead, and flinch as the massive grills of Kenworths, Peterbilts, and Macks whoosh past on your left. It’s brutal out there. Last October through June of this year saw 1,142 crashes involving trucks, with 16 fatalities and 242 injuries. One official told me that some workers come here, take a two-week course in big rig driving, and hit the road as amateurs. 

Last modified Wed, 2 Nov, 2011 at 15:01

Refinery Construction Begins on North Dakota Reservation

Photo: Oil refinery in Billings, Montana, by Jon Martin via Flickr

By Reese Rogers

We are of the firm belief we will become more sovereign by the barrel.”

–Chairman Tex Hall. January 2011.

Construction began recently on the first oil refineries to be built in the United States in decades. The refinery is situated on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota, home to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. The construction is the culmination of a development process that began back in 2003 when tribal leaders of the Three Affiliated Tribes first proposed the refinery project as a way of bringing economic development and jobs to the reservation community. Fort Berthold now encompasses much of the booming Bakken oil field.

This recent energy boom on the reservation and now the permission to build the refinery are long-awaited bright spots in the economic development of a people who have seen more than their fair share of hardship. Beyond the history of decimation through disease and violent conflict, many tribe members today still remember the tribe’s 1951 relocation to make way for the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River. Their original settlements and childhood homes are now buried under the waters of Lake Sakakawea. 

Last modified Wed, 28 Sep, 2011 at 10:58