By David Asia
First, some background on the Bakken Crude Oil Formation in North Dakota:
“The Bakken Shale ranks as one of the largest oil developments in the U.S. in the past 40 years. The play has single-handedly driven North Dakota’s oil production to levels four times higher than previous peaks in the 1980s. As of June 2015, North Dakota is second to Texas in terms of oil production and boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 3.1 percent.
“The Bakken Shale Play is located in Eastern Montana and Western North Dakota, as well as parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the Williston Basin. Oil was initially discovered in the Bakken play in 1951, but was not commercial on a large scale until the past 10 years. The advent of modern horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing helps make Bakken oil production economic [sic]. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the Bakken Shale Formation could yield 4.3 billion barrels of oil and estimates from Continental Resources stretch as high as 40 billion barrels” (taken from “Bakken Shale: News, Marketplace, Jobs,” copyright 2009-2017).
Transforming our economy from one dependent on fossil fuels to one increasingly, and more desirably, dependent upon renewable resources doesn’t happen by magic. We can’t just wish it to be so. It happens because of the development decisions we actively support with our social and economic policies and incentives. As a society, we decide to support some things instead of other things, and so the future is made.
We’re hearing more and more about the Bakken Oil Field as we watch the growth and evolution of the protests on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. But, as important as this protest continues to be (and it will continue to be incredibly important), it is still only a part of the story.
In reality, the Bakken Oil Field in North Dakota presents a perfect storm of challenges and opportunities for the United States. Because of the nature of the oil itself, the risks of transporting it by pipeline under the Missouri River (regardless of where), and the depressed nature of oil prices, the wisest course for the nation as a whole might be (gulp) to just to leave it in the ground.
Aside from the questionable ethics and treaty aspects of rerouting the pipeline from north of Bismarck to a route south of Bismarck on the edge of the Standing Rock Reservation, and aside from burying a 30-inch pipe full of flowing crude oil 92 feet under the Missouri River period, there are these:
Bakken Crude, involved in several rail fires and explosions, is too volatile to be transported by rail or truck. This leaves a pipeline, regardless of risk, as the only option (Bakken Crude is considered “sweet crude” and, to our oil economy, is akin to pure heroin to a heroin addict. Interestingly, both can kill you — one all too quickly and the other over generations).
According to a University of Michigan study, the Bakken Oil Field specifically is a “ … key culprit in global ethane gas increase.” Ethane gas hydrocarbons increase concentrations of ozone in the atmosphere which directly affect global climate.
North Dakota has put most if not all of its economic development chips on the continued fracking and transport of Bakken Crude.
So this is where the rubber meets the road, isn’t it? How do we reverse a series of decisions which the science overwhelmingly agrees will most likely make things measurably worse for the planet both in the near and far term? And as desirable and even necessary for our futures as it might be, is it even possible for us to leave it in the ground?
Mind you, I’m not concerned about the shareholders of Energy Transfer and other corporations who have thrown their lot in with the completion of this or that pipeline. They should have been better advised when the writing was first seen on the wall some 10 years ago. They are now free to break ground and initiate a class action lawsuit against their corporate officers for malfeasance and misrepresentation of the investment environment. What is good for Energy Transport Corporation may not be at all good for the nation.
How to do it
So, if you’ve stuck with me this far, here’s the question: How would we actually suspend the fracking and transport of new Bakken oil without demolishing the economy of North Dakota?
You do like it says in the movies: you make them an offer they can’t refuse.
Specifically, let’s work with the people and government of North Dakota, including the Standing Rock Sioux, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation (Three Affiliated Tribes), the Spirit Lake Nation, the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation, and the Trenton Indian Service Area in order to reclaim the Bakkan landscape, and, simultaneously, to develop and finance a renewable energy infrastructure which includes the manufacturing and deployment of solar and wind technologies as well as other alternative energy sources appropriate to the North Dakota environment. Incidentally, Bismarck, just north of Standing Rock, gets an average of 200 days of sunshine per year. And the annual average wind speed for Bismarck, and North Dakota in general, is 9.5 miles per hour (1.20 miles per hour more than the national average).
I understand that an effort like this creates many problems to solve, political and economic. But they might be the kinds or problems that help us create a better future for ourselves. Perhaps it could be the first major infrastructure endeavor of the new administration, providing additional stimulus to American manufacturing and to a new energy future. A high-risk pipeline project is set aside, and North Dakota becomes independent of the boom and bust of the oil economy, growing to become the hub of U.S. renewable energy. Seems like a pretty good investment to me.
What’s more, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to the good people of North Dakota who have already adopted a new motto to go with this new economic future: Serit ut alteri saeclo prosit (One sows for the benefit of another age).
Now I can hear the guffaws grumbles as you read this. If you had any doubts about my sanity before, you know for sure now. But, you know, given what we are learning about climate change and its current and projected impacts, this just might be the sanest, most rational proposal you’ll read about big oil for a long time.
And you can take that to the bank.
David Asia lives in Twisp.