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North Dakota's Fracking Boom Is A False Panacea

J. Mijin Cha

An in-depth look at the fracking boom in North Dakota reveals what fracking does for rural communities, both good and bad. Rich in natural resources, yet sparse in population, North Dakota has gone through a few natural resource mining boom and bust cycles, the last one being an oil boom 30 years ago. Then, in 2005, fracking opened up the Bakken Formation, which now accounts for 91 percent of the state’s oil production. At that time, North Dakota was ranked ninth among oil-producing states in the country. Five years later, in 2010, North Dakota had climbed to fourth and last July, North Dakota became the second largest oil producer, just behind Texas. North Dakota’s oil production accounts for 11 percent of total U.S. oil production and is the main reason the state has a $3.8 billion surplus.

For rural communities with little to no economic opportunities, fracking seems like an economic panacea. Populations are booming, as are property values and development. The tax base increases and local municipalities have more funds. North Dakota was one of only two states that actually increased funding to higher education over the last five years. The only other state to increase funding over this time period is Wyoming, another state that saw big economic gains from fracking (and my home state).

In fact, Wyoming could be seen as the reason there is a fracking boom. Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Congressman from Wyoming, pushed for opening public land to oil and gas development. At his urging, fracking was exempted from the Clean Water Act in 2005, the same year that states started seeing oil and gas booms. Wyoming is also an example of what happens when you let the fracking industry rule your regulatory system. The EPA has linked fracking to groundwater contamination in the state. There are unsafe levels of ozone, a precursor to smog that is usually only found in densely populated areas, not the least populated state in the nation.

Yet, at least Wyoming has one of the more comprehensive disclosure laws in the country. North Dakota, in contrast, allows companies to withhold information they deem confidential, which is the loophole that companies use to prevent disclosing what chemicals they use in their fracking cocktails. Considering that fracking uses millions of gallons of pressurized water mixed with sand and various chemicals to crack open hairline channels in the Bakken shale, who knows what is leaking in the ground in the state.

In 2011 alone, over 1,000 cases of oil, fracking fluids, or waterwater accidental releases were reported in North Dakota. Under the state’s regulations, agencies overseeing drilling and water safety can sanction companies that dump or spill waste but less than 50 disciplinary actions have been issued over the past three years. There are also so many natural gas flares from drilling operations that the sparsely populated state can be seen from space. Twenty-nine percent of the natural gas extracted is flared off and some nights the flares are as bright as the aurora borealis.

North Dakota may have lived through several boom and bust cycles before, but the enduring damage caused by fracking will leave the state far more scarred and barren than any previous cycle. When the oil and gas run out—and they will run out—with what will the state be left?