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Native Sun News: Oil flares lighting up North Dakota tribe's skies

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

The blazing flare of an oil well pad is the first thing to catch the eye in the reservation segment of Mandaree.

Blazing flares light up Ft. Berthold’s night skies
1,000 more oil wells expected to be drilled
Story and photos by Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

Earlier: PART I | PART II

MANDAREE, N.D. –– Crossing the Little Missouri River from the south into the Mandan Hidatsa & Arikara (MHA) Nation, the first thing that catches the eye, amidst the pastel-banded mounds and furrows of the delicate badlands formations here, is the blazing flare of an oil-well pad.

Welcome to Mandaree, the segment of the Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation (FBIR) that extracts the most oil in the Bakken Formation’s fracking frenzy.

“Mandaree is in the heart of the boom. It’s just lit up,” says Kathy Eagle, CEO and quality care director of the Three Affiliated Tribes (TAT) health care center.

Even with recent slumps in fossil fuel prices, the tribes are delivering more than 370,000 barrels of oil a day from 1,376 active wells, and have 1,992 additional potential wells to drill, according to official statistics for January 2015.

“FBIR is located at the center of the area currently being overrun by the development of the Bakken oil reserve,” state the findings of a joint study by the U.S. Geological Survey and Fort Berthold Community College.

“We are now into the drilling phase of the Bakken Play and expect approximately 1,000 wells to be drilled over the next 10 years,” says a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs report. “The environmental effects on the reservation will be substantial.”

The flaring that signifies the development – intended to burn off unused gas from the wells -- also denotes the decline of environmental quality, the social and economic downside to the boom.

The light pollution from untold hundreds of flares and nighttime illumination at well field worksites is famous thanks to a satellite image that shows a bright constellation in the middle of a dark mass of western North Dakota.

“The exact number of flares is unknown and varies constantly but hundreds of oil well sites are flaring,” says Tanya Driver, lead researcher on the USGS-FBCC study.

Looking northwest from the reservation toward the oil-patch capital of Williston, the flare-struck sky in the evening appears like an orange version of the Northern Lights. During overcast days, the clouds reflect a pervasive carroty flickering, creating a perpetual Halloween aura.

“When I drive into New Town or out toward Mandaree, I just hate it, because you have a whole bank of lights and flares and gasses,” says Dorreen Yellow Bird, public relations representative for the TAT’s Arikara Cultural Center.

The tribal headquarters, New Town is in Mountrail County, which, like Mandaree’s McKenzie County, is among the five most-active oil producing divisions of the state of North Dakota.

At a restaurant in New Town’s Van Hook neighborhood, the entryway smells -- not like burgers and fries -- rather like a restroom. The sulfuric odor persists at the supper table. It also permeates the motel next door.

Not mentioned in the promo material about the visitors’ accommodations here on the banks of the stunning Lake Sakakawea is that the property has a flare right in the front yard.

Hunters who normally spend tourist dollars in the area had a setback in the most recent season when the tribes suspended licensing due to thinning of wildlife numbers. Low survey numbers on pronghorns and elk forced the TAT Fish and Wildlife authorities to close the 2014 hunt.

“That’s part of the aftermath,” said health care administrator Tiffany Rave. “We used to have 200 deer in my field. Now we have five oil rigs and the deer are gone. That noise scared them away.”

While the first oil lease on the MHA Nation was signed in 2005, only one well site existed on Indian trust land until 2008.

That’s when state and tribal authorities agreed on a formula that assured oil companies they had a “one-stop shop” for permitting and a tax-sharing agreement between the two jurisdictions.

Since then, the reservation’s oil development has proceeded at breakneck pace.

“To say that the momentum of the Northern Plains oil boom has overwhelmed the Three Affiliated Tribes is an understatement,” notes Maura Grogan in her study “Native American Lands and Natural Resource Development,” for the New York-based Revenue Watch Institute.

“This has all happened within three to five years,” said Kerry Hartman, Environmental Science Department director at Ft. Berthold Community College (BBCC).

Mandaree resident Lisa Deville says she remembers “the first time I saw a huge flare behind our house: The snow was yellow.”

She and her husband went to lobby the Tribal Business Council (TBC) against the seemingly unfettered outbreak of fracking. “They’ve got oil pumping in the badlands: Why did they allow that to happen?” she asked.

A senior in Environmental Science at FBCC and the president of the Student Senate, Deville pointed out that releasing pressure by venting oil field gas on trust lands is a waste of public energy sources, and gas is “also being wasted through the flaring 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

She testified during 2014 federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) hearings that the process contributes to climate change and acid rain, noting that “technology has been in existence to convert this gas at well sites into electricity for long time.”

In the black gold rush, comprehensive oil and gas planning “has proved nearly non-existent in the state of North Dakota and is the direct cause of the societal and environmental problems we face today,” Jan Swenson, executive director of the Badlands Conservation Alliance, testified at the hearings, scheduled to update regulation of gas flaring and venting.

“Our burning night sky shames us to the world,” he said. “It is prairie skies that define a prairie landscape, as well as a prairie inhabitant. Desecration of those skies runs contrary to our conservative character and native quickening,” he added.

The composition of the gases being flared is “relatively unstudied and can only be estimated,” Driver said.

Flares can release as many as 250 toxins; they emit particulate matter and greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming; their constituents include sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxides and carcinogenic substances, as well as unburned fuel components, among them benzene, toluene, xylene, and hydrogen sulfide, according to a study by the non-profit Friends of the Earth.

Without a doubt, “gas flaring has had an environmental impact on the Fort Berthold Reservation and the surrounding areas, says Sasha Sillitti, lead researcher on a recent gas flaring investigation by Ft. Berthold Community College and the University of North Dakota. “The depth of this impact is yet to be revealed.”

Dr. Eagle says health concerns include complaints about eyes smarting and breathing conditions. However, studies about that remain to be accomplished.

“We would really need somebody to come in and detail the respiratory effects,” she said. “We haven’t studied enough and don’t know enough because we are all on this huge learning curve.”

Dr. Hartman also noted “an increase in upper respiratory complaints.” Although no quantitative studies have been done, he said, “Haze can’t be good.”

He said the college has been designing another research project to see how flaring and particulate pollution might be affecting Native Americans.

Meanwhile FBCC has taken part in habitat studies. “We found the flares had a veritable toxic cocktail of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in them,” Hartman said.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, are associated with cancer and birth defects in experiments on exposure to laboratory animals, prompting federal regulations limiting levels of workplace emissions. However, Silitti noted, “In North Dakota and on the Ft. Berthold Indian Reservation, oil companies are not currently required to report the composition of gas being flared or vented on an ongoing basis.” Flaring in and around FBIR is “unregulated and lacks sufficient oversight,” says Driver. The Tribal Business Council passed a resolution in 2013 requiring oil companies to pay royalties and production taxes on the gas if they kept flaring it after a one-year period from the commencement of a well’s production. The TBC said it took the action “due to the lack of enforcement by the Bureau of Land Management.”

The BLM subsequently held its hearings. The American Petroleum Institute testified: “There is no need for BLM to develop additional regulations.”

Other industry representatives argued along the same lines, asking for the agency to delay compliance actions until after EPA produced new standards.

They noted that their operations would not be as profitable if they had to live up to more stringent environmental protections.

On the other side of the roster, Mandan‐Hidatsa land and mineral owner Joletta Bird Bear made 25 recommendations for improved regulations and transparency in reporting gas releases.

Her remarks culminated, “Recognize this statement: This earth is our mother. As a mother, she provides for you. So don’t harm her anymore. Recognize the inter‐relatedness of nature and people. Please refrain from making decisions in a vacuum, as if your decision is of no significance when it impacts all living systems.”

By the end of the comment period, the BLM had received 256 form letters stating: “Leaking and venting gases make people sick. Flares are noisy and disruptive to neighbors. Flaring, venting, and leaks are major sources of climate changing gases. Please stop the leaking, the venting, and the flaring with strong rules.”

Leading up to the hearings, members of the Three Affiliated Tribes sued a dozen oil companies for violating the business council’s resolution, claiming that the industry operating on the reservation was getting away with flaring 67 percent of its natural gas, compared to approximately 32-percent flaring in the rest of North Dakota.

Plaintiffs charged in their February 2014 Ft. Berthold District tribal court complaint that the companies failed to comply with the tribal prohibition on flaring and the payment of royalties.

One of the defendants, Kodiak Oil & Gas (USA) Inc., counter-sued in federal District Court for protection and injunctive relief from the charges. It claimed the parties were not subject to the jurisdiction of the tribe nor does the tribe have jurisdiction over flaring rules compliance.

The other companies named in the suit by tribal members are XTO Energy Inc., EOG Resources, WPX Energy, Marathon Oil Co., Petro Hunt LLC, HRC Operating LIC, HRC Resources, LW (aka HaIcon), OEP Resources Inc., Slawson Exploration Co. Inc., Windsor Energy Group LLC, Gulfport Energy Corp., and Enerplus.

While the legal issues were still hanging fire in the halls of justice, the Federal Register published EPA additions to oil-and-gas industry emissions standards on Dec. 31, which updated well-completion and storage-vessel provisions.

On Jan. 14, the EPA announced a series of steps it would take through 2016 to curb global warming by increasing controls on methane and smog-forming volatile organic compounds emanating from new oil-and-gas facilities.

Environmental organizations criticized the amendments for being applied only to any new development.

However, a study by marketing consultant ICF International, entitled “Economic Analysis of Methane Emission Reductions Opportunities in the U.S. Onshore Oil and Natural Gas Industries,” highlighted a number of economically feasible techniques.

It concluded that a 40-percent reduction in methane emissions from the oil and gas industry is achievable with existing technologies at a total cost of only a penny per 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas produced.

Meanwhile, off-reservation, the North Dakota Industrial Commission put regulations into effect that called for operators to reduce flaring rates to 26 percent by October 2014.

In the last week of January 2015, lawmakers in the state Senate were entertaining a bill to limit new well flaring to only 90 days, cut the amount that could be flared daily and nix some exemptions.

The Environmental Law and Policy Center encouraged the BLM to develop a memorandum of understanding with the state and the tribes to meet oil and gas inspection and enforcement goals.

BLM has formal agreements in California, Colorado, Nevada and Wyoming, but not in North Dakota.

MHA Energy Director Carson Hood said the tribes are working with federal government to monitor venting and flaring. Natural gas flare rates have been brought down to an average 32 percent. Now the tribe wants gas pipelines to put the rest of the gas to use, he said.

“The flaring should be at 98-percent efficiency. That’s the tribes’ standard,” Hood said.

Installing transportation and distribution routes for the gas is considered “midstream infrastructure development,” and Hood noted that “we’re not keeping up to speed with the mid-streamers and making sure the infrastructure is in place to transport the natural gas.”

According to testimony presented to the BLM, “Though in some areas there may be bottlenecks in moving gas to pipelines because of limited infrastructure or gathering lines without enough capacity, it is technologically possible and economically feasible for operators to capture the gas at the well site to limit flaring and venting.

“Existing capture technologies are particularly economical to install at well sites in the Bakken in North Dakota because of the unique qualities of the natural gas, including greater amounts of liquids such as ethane, propane, butane, or natural gasoline.”

Hood said that for his office, “The primary issues for Fiscal Year 2015 are gas capture and the emergency management program.”

Still, for any semblance of environmental justice to occur, Deville said in a recent set of recommendations entitled “Next Steps” and released on behalf of the FBCC student body, it is necessary to undertake “air testing to establish baseline data and monitor environmental impacts.”

(Talli Nauman is the Health and Environment Editor for Native Sun News. She can be contacted at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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