Bakken Briefing for Legislators

“It’s like the choice of driving the car with bad brakes, or driving the car with bad steering.”

That’s the choice we face when we choose between moving oil from the Bakken oil field by train or by pipeline. Our options are not good. The present discussions of thousands of miles of new pipelines from North Dakota mean that we will need to look a bit deeper into what is going on in our region, perhaps with our economy, and for sure with our future.  The decisions made today will impact many generations ahead, and require a full understanding of the opportunities and risks. Opportunities are those to make good decisions – to make decisions which may change us, and our future. Risks are those posed by the choices we make or are making. Consider that there’s about 2.65 billion barrels of oil in the Bakken. There are possibly 3.73 billion barrels of oil in the Three Forks, which underlays the Bakken – if we can get that out. Now, consider a couple other things.

First, the US consumed 6.8 billion barrels of oil in 2012. In other words, the Bakken represents half a year of US oil. Now, let’s look at the present situation and what we are facing. 

What’s going on with the Bakken?

  • People’s drinking water is catching on fire: There’s a (now viral) youtube video of a man lighting his tap water on fire in the Bakken fields. That’s just the tip of the contamination.

  • Quebec.png
    The recent explosion of train cars carrying fracked oil "incinerated" the town of Lac Megantic, Quebec. Bakken oil is highly volatile, as seen in the recent explosion of derailed train cars outside Casselton, ND.
    Groundwater is getting contaminated: There are over 600 chemicals being injected into the Earth, as a part of the process of fracking. Those chemicals are unregulated and undisclosed. Then there is the problem of radioactive wastes. Darrell Dorgan’s recent story in the Dickinson Press discusses the problem: “There are 75 tons of radioactive and toxic drilling waste being generated daily in the western part of the state. Rules and regulations require radioactive waste above 5 picocuries be sent to an approved dump site out-of-state. That’s not happening. Bags used to screen radioactive waste are found daily in ditches and, even at the entrance to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Piles of radioactive waste are also found along section lines, in fields and eventually it all goes into the water you drink and the food you eat.”
  • Pipelines are leaking: In September of 2013, 800,000 plus gallons spilled into a Tioga Farm Field, just slightly less than the Enbridge Kalamazoo Spill of 2010.  North Dakota has recorded 139 pipeline leaks that spilled a total of 735 barrels of oil.

"The public really should know about these," Morrison with the landowner group said. "If there is a spill, sometimes a landowner may not even know about it. And if they do, people think it's an isolated incident that's only happening to them.

In contrast, Department of Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms  says…regulators worry about "over-reporting" spills. The goal, Helms said, is to find a balance to so that "the public is aware of what's happening but not overwhelmed by little incidents."

  • protectourland.png
    To see a video about our spiritual ride to protect our land and community from the pipelines, search YouTube for “Honor the Earth: Ride for Mother Earth”.
    Train cars are exploding: The recent Casselton train derailment provided a frightening example of the daily dangers because of the fast pace of development. Large explosions are frightening, and although this was not in a city, the fact is that thousands of train cars travel through our towns. Bakken Light crude is “hydrogen-heavy and carbon-light,” which enables it to flow easily, but also makes it “alarmingly explosive”, according to the Center for Research on Globalization (CRG). Railroads hauled 34.2 million barrels of oil in 2012, more than six times what was shipped in 2011. That will increase, and Bakken oil is far more explosive.
  • Pipelines spill more often than rail: over the past decade, pipelines have spilled 474,441 barrels of oil, compared to the 2,268 barrels spilled over the same time by rail. Pipeline spills also tend to be larger than rail. Those pipeline spills can also explode. Such is the case with the Olympic Pipeline tragedy in Whatcom Creek, near Bellingham Washington. It was a l6-inch gas pipeline from a refinery to Portland, when a pressure release valve failed, the surge caused the rupture, and 277,200 gallons of gas escaped.
  • The Bakken for the Future? That’s just the beginning. And it’s going to be a short, very destructive boom.  It won’t be a cycle, because North Dakota will never be the same again, nor will we, here if we allow it all to go on. 
  • Short-term production, long-term destruction: Bakken  fracked oil wells are short producers – meaning we need more and more oil wells to fill those pipelines. Here’s how it works: as of October 2013, production in the Bakken in ND was roughly at 850,000 bpd, and growing to this level required that the industry drill approximately 160 new wells every monthA production rate of 1 million barrels per day would last about 20 years and require roughly 40,000 new wells in the formation. As of October 2013 there were 9,606 producing oil wells in North Dakota, and that many have already been retired. (Of the 24,978 permitted wells, 10,234 have been “reclaimed” or are going through the reclamation process, according to Alison Ritter, public information officer for the Department of Mineral Resources
Termed "Kuwait on the Prairie" the Bakken field, with no large cities and low population, can be seen shining as brightly as Minneapolis at night. According to North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources, 29 percent of the natural gas now extracted in North Dakota is flared off.

It is hard to see how western North Dakota does not become a toxic waste contaminated industrial zone. If higher recoverable estimates are used (such as the USGS 11 billion barrel amount), the number of wells climbs proportionately as does the waste and impacts to land and water.  Also, since most of this crude passes through Minnesota and given the number of rail derailments and pipeline ruptures over time, a train or pipeline disaster sometime in the next 20 years would seem to be likely.

What can we do?

  • Slow down. Maybe we need to see what’s going on in the Bakken before we make a big mess. That’s what a lot of landowners are saying in western North Dakota.
  • Where will we get our oil from? There’s plenty of western hemisphere oil – it just happens to be in Venezuela, a country from which we’ve imported billions of barrels of oil – until recently. We’ve cut those imports by 30%, largely for political reasons, and some for economic reasons. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world, and that is at 296.5 billion barrels of oil. That is well above a hundred times more oil than the Bakken. And, there is already infrastructure – the oil is easily extracted, and this does not include any tar sands or oil sands practices. There are tankers, refineries, and pipelines. The US has historically not liked Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, but he has passed away.

    Oil is cheaper when it’s taken through extreme measures in the Canadian sub Arctic, we don’t have to pay a fair price for it, and oil interests, like the Koch brothers – who hold over two million acres of northern Alberta’s oil fields ( larger than Exxon, or any corporation) – make a lot more money that way. We need to rethink our oil strategy. Stick with the oil which is easy to get, already has tankers and refineries (the Gulf Coast), and make nice. And, maybe we conserve, and put in more renewable energy and railcars, which carry people not oil and coal.
  • tesoro.png
    A Tesoro pipeline spilled more than 20,000 barrels of crude oil into farmer Jensen's wheat field outside Tioga, ND last month. We owe our community more than the risk of ruined lives, and toxic waste.
    Are Pipelines Inevitable?  No. Oil can move by railcar just fine, although safety needs to be upgraded significantly – including the introduction of a fleet-wide set of new tanker cars, which are sturdier. Enbridge’s certificate of need for the Sandpiper line is at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC). There is no urgent need for this pipeline, and we need to deliver this message to the PUC.
  • Public Policies:  We need to enact some thoughtful policies. The precautionary principle, or precautionary approach, states that if an action or policy has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on those taking an action.


Dorgan, Darrell. “Oil Should Not be a ‘One-Time Harvest’”.  The Dickinson Press.

Jacques, Leslie. “Shipping Crude Oil by Rail: New Front in Tar Sands War”. Center for Research on Globalization.

Likver, Rune. “In Bakken (ND) it is now Mostly About Mckenzie County.” Fractional Flow:

U.S Energy Information Administration. “Petroleum and Other Liquids: Products Supplied.”

Walsh, Bryan. “North Dakota Derailment Shows Dark Side of American Oil Boom.” TIME Science and Space.

A warning about the potential high volatility of Bakken crude comes after the derailment and explosion of an oil train, above, west of Casselton, N.D.

A warning about the potential high volatility of Bakken crude comes after the derailment and explosion of an oil train, above, west of Casselton, N.D.
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