Friday, October 18, 2013

Anxiety over the collateral consequences of oil exploration in North Dakota

John Eligon reported for the NY Times yesterday from Ross, North Dakota, population 97, a story that highlights the tension between agriculture and the extractive industries--both historically 'rural' pursuits, in the booming northwest quadrant of that state.  The headline is "In North Dakota, New Concerns Over Mixing Oil and Wheat," and the story features the conundrum of the Sorensen family.  While they own their land and are able to farm full time thanks in part to five years Mr. Sorensen worked in Montana's oil fields, they are anxious about a proposed landfill to be sited across the road from their farm in Montrail County, just east of Williams County, home to the increasingly high-profile oil-exploration hub that is Williston.  That landfill would dispose of solid drilling waste, but Kim Sorensen expresses concern not about whether a spill will occur, but when that will happen.  Here's an excerpt from the story:
But more oil means more drilling, resulting in tons of waste that is putting cropland at risk and raising doubt among farmers that these two cash crops can continue to coexist. 
A private company is trying to install a landfill to dispose of solid drilling waste on a golden 160-acre wheat field across the road from Mike and Kim Sorenson’s farmhouse. Although the engineers and regulators behind the project insist that it is safe for the environment, the Sorensons have voiced concern that salt from the drilling waste could seep onto their land, which would render the soil infertile and could contaminate their water, causing their property value to drop.
Dave Hyneck, a commissioner of Montrail County, is quoted:
I wouldn’t say that production agriculture is being forgotten because everyone understands that it always has been and always will be the backbone of the economy of North Dakota.  However, the tremendous amount of money coming into the state coffers from the oil industry at the present time has overshadowed that.
According to the N.D. Health Department's Division of Waste Management, the volume of drilling waste disposed of in North Dakota last year was 15 times that disposed of just 6 years earlier, in 2006.

Mike Sorensen is the third generation in his family to farm this land.  A photo that accompanies the story pictures him with his wife and five children.

Here is another recent story about oil field perils in North Dakota, this one suggesting delays in discovery and reporting of a massive oil spill in Tioga, population 1,230, where a Tesoro pipeline was leaking.  The spill was initially estimated at less than 1000 barrels, but that figure was later revised upward to more than 20K barrels, making it one of the largest spills in state history.  Tioga is in Williams County.  Interestingly, it was a farmer who discovered the leak, but both state and Tesoro officials are implicated in not making the leak public until 11 days after the farmer's report.  The farmer says he smelled oil for several days before he saw it coating the wheels of his tractor during his harvest.  Read more here.

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