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Tensions between environment and fossil fuels shown in policy questions

A protester of the Dakota Access Pipeline stands before a police line on Oct. 27 north of Cannon Ball, N.D. (Michael Vosburg / Forum )

A longstanding conflict between environmentalists and the energy industry boils down to finding a balance between fossil fuel extraction and dependency with climate change and other long-term impacts on the environment.

Environmentalists say the surging energy industry contributes to climate change by encouraging fossil fuel dependency and releasing harmful gasses and chemicals into the environment. Industry officials argue fossil fuels feed the state's economy and contribute heavily to the job force.

A report from the United Nations said the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is linked to the average global temperature—both have been rising since the Industrial Revolution. The report said carbon dioxide, which is largely created when fossil fuels are burned, accounts for two-thirds of all greenhouse gases. Fossil fuels include finite resources like oil, natural gas and coal, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

A United Nations Climate Change report showed an average temperature change of 1.5 degrees Celsius worldwide is expected between 2010 and 2052 if trends continue. The report said this could cause severe droughts, flooding and extreme weather.

Tensions between environmentalists and the energy industry have led to significant protests in the area, including at the Dakota Access Pipeline site near Cannon Ball, N.D., and the proposed Enbridge Line 3 pipeline near Bemidji. The energy industry is facing regulatory changes at the state and national level, especially concerning methane, coal and fuel standards.

Todd Leake, an Emerado, N.D., farmer and chairman of the Sierra Club's Dacotah Chapter, said climate change is more obvious in other parts of the planet than in North Dakota or Minnesota because of the states' location. He said areas such as the Arctic poles are showing rapid changes because warmer weather is melting ice caps.

"The fact is we put 10 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere every year worldwide from manmade sources, and the biosphere has to digest that in one form or another and it can't necessarily do that," Leake said. "So the physics of this is just that if we put that much carbon into the atmosphere, we're going to change the atmosphere and change the climate of the planet."

Industry impact

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said climate change has been ongoing for hundreds of years. He said the oil industry is progressive about making changes to reduce the environmental impact.

North Dakota is the country's second-largest producer of oil, according to the NDPC. Ness said the oil industry employs 20 percent of the state's workforce and pays 30 percent of the state's wages.

Nearly 80,000 people moved to North Dakota during the past decade to seek jobs in the energy industry. New technology eased extraction from the Bakken Oil Fields, one of the most oil-rich portions of the country.

"The industry is a big piece of the North Dakota economy and it benefits people across the state," said NDPC Communications Director Kristen Hamman. "The tax revenues are used all over the state for infrastructure in different communities. We want people to know that we are doing everything we can to produce the resource in a clean and safe way and to transport the resource—pipeline safety, those are priorities for us."

Leake acknowledged the economic side of oil and gas but said our culture cannot continue to rely so heavily on fossil fuels. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration said the United States leads the world in oil consumption. It consumes about 20 percent of all oil.

The U.S. is also one of the leading countries for developing new technology for energy generation, Leake said. He said wind and solar energy are alternatives to coal, and the new methods are gaining traction, although they also have problems.

"As time goes on, we're going to see ecological changes in how we generate electricity, although coal is still a very big part of that," Leake said. "People are reluctant to let go of that and how they've done things. ... The transition is a mind-boggling change. It's something that's been inevitable in the industrialized world for a very long time—they moved from one thing to another. Things change at an ever-increasing rate as technology becomes more understood and diversified."

Ness said although there has been some push for renewable energy, it hasn't impacted the oil and gas industry. He also noted that it takes a significant amount of resources and energy to build infrastructure for renewable energy.

Minnesota does not produce fossil fuels but plays a role in their transport. Coal is often shipped through Lake Superior and the Mississippi River, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said. Oil is also shipped through the state via railcar or pipeline.

Changing regulations

President Donald Trump has taken steps to remove regulations implemented by the Obama administration that aim to slow climate change.

Trump is skeptical about climate change. Since taking office, he has removed regulations on emissions at coal power plants, reduced requirements on oil and gas companies to monitor methane releases, removed vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and cut funding for climate and energy research.

Ness said the federal methane rule was a "duplicative roadblock" for North Dakota because state standards already required greater capture. He said the NDPC supports Trump's federal repeals because "the states know best," and federal policies are burdensome and broad.

The methane rule required oil and gas companies to monitor and regulate the release of methane from wells and other operations. Natural gas is emitted when oil drilling happens, but facilities without the ability to capture the gas burn it off or flare it. Methane is one of the main components of natural gas and also a greenhouse gas.

North Dakota is one of few states already monitoring and placing restrictions on methane. The amount of required gas capture has steadily increased since 2014, when the regulation was implemented.

In November, state regulations increased to require 88 percent of gas to be captured.

Hamman said the NDPC has pushed for a pause on capture change requirements so the industry has more time to adapt. She said some of the organization's legislative priorities will be to create goals that are more attainable for the industry.

"That's an issue where if they require the gas-capture requirement on Nov. 1 that directly affects production," Hamman said. "So the industry is working on infrastructure to capture that gas, rather than having to flare it, so we, the NDPC and our members have been communicating and testifying how the regulations affect our production and moving forward our ability to continue to comply."

North Dakota has invested about $18 billion for gas-capture infrastructure and technology since 2008, Ness said. This year, he said the industry will invest another $2.5 billion.

Ness said North Dakota is a leader in emission reductions and has some of the highest clean air ratings in the country from the Environmental Protection Agency. He said the industry began regulating emissions before the federal mandate because they needed to find a tailored solution.

Leake said the capture requirements aren't moving fast enough and flaring and venting methane is wasteful.

"There's been 457 million cubic feet per day of natural gas (that) has been flared," Leake said. "So, that's better than venting methane onto the land, I suppose, but it's still a huge waste of natural resources, and it's made North Dakota a contributor to global warming. We're not doing our share to abate that—we're being a major contributor now."

Lisa DeVille, president and founder of the Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights, said she's already seeing the immediate impacts of the oil industry in Mandaree, N.D., where she lives, and worries for the environment's future.

The Fort Berthold Reservation, where Mandaree sits, has the highest levels of flaring in the state. She said the oil wells come at a heavy cost to the environment—oil spills could poison nearby water supplies and saltwater spills contaminate agricultural land.

DeVille said respiratory illnesses have increased in the area, and both she and her husband have become ill from breathing in the chemicals released from flaring.

She said it's a little-discussed problem, because the draw of oil money often overpowers long-term environmental concerns such as climate change. Some tribal members receive royalties from the oil extracted on their land. The profits are split among members, but DeVille said she feels they are on the losing end of the bargain. She said resources are being shipped out of the state so others can profit from them.

"It's frustrating because all our people, that's all they see now is money. ... People don't care about change or what to worry about in the future or things about the long term—they care about now," she said.