By Ashton Marra
August 28, 2013 · West Virginia and North Dakota have one thing in common – an economy that relies on extractive industry that each state taxes. Last week legislators from West Virginia met in North Dakota learn more about that state’s Legacy Fun, but as the meeting progressed, the focus changed from talk about the savings account to the industry.
The environmental concerns of the two states with very different topographies are similar when it comes to the oil and natural gas industries.
Shale is one common element when it comes to oil and gas extraction in the two states. West Virginia’s natural gas production is based on the hydraulic fracturing of Marcellus shale. In North Dakota, oil comes from the Bakken shale formation, and the portion of the Bakken situated in the state is about the same size as West Virginia.
As with any extraction industry, environmental concerns are always a high priority for the governments regulating them. North Dakota’s industry is regulated by the state Department of Mineral Resources.
“Right now, the environmental concern is flaring,” said Lynn Helms, the director of the department.
Flaring is the process through which natural gas and other byproducts are burned as waste at the well site before the crude oil reaches the surface.
David Manthos is with the Shepherdstown-based group SkyTruth which studies the effects of activities like mining, drilling and logging using satellite digital mapping technology. Manthos said Skytruth has seen the impact oil drilling has had in the Bakken region.
“Thirty percent of the natural gas produced in the Bakken is being flared and the annual emissions are equivalent to the annual emissions of one million automobiles,” he said Tuesday. “So, even if it’s working optimally, it’s producing enough carbon dioxide to offset some of the benefits we would hope to obtain by extracting natural gas.”
Manthos said the practice does not happen as often at wells in the Marcellus region because natural gas is the sought after resource, but one industry representative said it still occurs.
“We do some flaring, but we do it to burn off impurities,” said Corky DeMarco, Executive Director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association. “They’re doing it because natural gas is a nuisance to them.”
DeMarco said those impurities are methane, butane, or associated gases that flow up from the ground with the frack water before the natural gas starts to surface, and if they’re not disposed of properly they can pose an explosive safety risk for works at well sites.
North Dakota’s Helms said DeMarco is right, natural gas can be seen as a nuisance for drillers who are after oil. Some forms of natural gas produced in the Bakken are more expensive to capture than they’re worth on the market so they burn them off, but the state is now starting to reassess the regulations surrounding the practice.
“I met with my Commissioners (of oil and gas) and told them that we’re at a stage in the Bakken and Three Forks where they need to reevaluate flaring policy and make some changes to reduce the amount of natural gas that’s being flared,” Helms said.
Both states deal with water issues as well. In fracking, chemical laced water is injected into the shale to release the gas or oil.
“The water issue is the most universal one across the board with hydraulic fracturing whether it’s here or at other locations,” Manthos said. “It’s the surface and groundwater contamination that could occur.”
In West Virginia, drilling companies run into the topographical challenge of finding flat land. They either have to build well sites in valleys close to streams or high on ridge tops. In both cases, the possibility of run off contamination has to be considered.
Run off is less of a concern on the flat plains of North Dakota, but both states share the issue of transportation, getting the water to and from the well sites.
Bakken shale is 20 percent salt, so tap water is used to dissolve it to get to the oil, but, much like West Virginia, the water is brought back up to the surface and trucked from the site.
Helms said it takes 2,000 truckloads of water to get just one well site on production in western North Dakota, prompting the state to look at other options.
“We’re trying to work with industry and get pipeline systems in place for moving the water to and from the wells. If we can do that number of truckloads goes from 2,000 down to 850,” he said. “So, we eliminate way over half of the truck trips and that will have an enormously positive impact on, not the truck industry, but obviously on dust, traffic and road infrastructure. Environmentally, it’s just absolutely the right thing to do.”
North Dakota plans to use public private partnerships to build many of the pipelines, but Manthos isn’t sure that is the solution for West Virginia.
“They’re at least a bigger engineering challenge to build pipelines. I do know there are locations where pipelines are being used and if that does reduce the amount of truck traffic than that by itself is progress,” he said, “but the fragmentation of constructing well pads, especially up and down some steep hillsides. So, there’s just as much of a concern that a hillside could slip in the process of building a pipeline.”
Still, Helms said all of the issues, environmental, economic and social, have to be balanced in order for the industry to be a success in any state.
“If you overemphasize environmental or social you can make it uneconomic. If you overemphasize the economics, you can make it something that is environmentally bad or socially bad for the people and all three of those have to be looked after.”
Special thanks to Richard Charter