A gas well flares off "extra" natural gas in the Bakken oil field, North Dakota
There has been an explosion in North Dakota. 1. An explosion of growth in the oil and gas development of this previously rural land. 2. Oil rig explosions resulting in a number of deaths. 3. And ongoing emissions of volatile organics from production operations at well sites and processing units, called flaring, that resemble ongoing explosions.
Our early morning flights in June over the Bakken reveal a region "on fire", from the huge amount of unwanted excess natural gas being burned off during oil production. The process effectively wastes a natural resource while simultaneously emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. As of May 2013, 29 percent of North Dakota's gas production was burnt off in flares.
The practice of flaring is causing a big problem globally. About 5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas was flared or vented worldwide in 2011. This huge amount of wasted energy is roughly equal to a quarter of all natural gas consumed in the US annually. Flaring also dumped 360 million tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere over the same period, equal to the exhaust of 70 million cars.
Infrastructure is being put in place to collect and process the gas. According to the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, there are currently eighteen gas plants processing North Dakota's gas, and six new plants are now under construction. But with thousands of new wells expected to be drilled in the coming decade - state officials predict that 45,000 wells will have been drilled by the time the rush draws down - it remains a question whether the pace of such construction can keep up with the drilling and flaring.
North Dakota now has the lowest unemployment rate in the country and the Bakken oil boom has brought much-needed jobs to the state. But the region might be better served if the oil and gas industry would slow down the breakneck pace of development and take measured action to protect the other natural resources in this once quiet and peaceful state. Resources such as the badlands, the Dakota grasslands, Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Killdeer Mountain area are all treasured wildlands that are being threatened by the upsurge in drilling activity in North Dakota.
Dear Friends and Supporters,
No, the FAA hasn’t ordered me to wear glasses when I’m flying. I’m wearing my special “Metcalf” glasses in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the designation of Montana’s Lee Metcalf Wilderness, which you can read about in the next article.
While in Montana, we had one of those amazing days on the Rocky Mountain Front: calm wind, crystal clear air, mountains with the last vestiges of snow on them, and the grasslands a vivid Irish green. Spring in Northern Montana. EcoFlight is flying out of the Choteau airport, a little airstrip just east and south of Glacier National Park, and due west of Great Falls.
We are flying local ranchers and outfitters over these wild lands, together with politicians and media representatives. This is an iconic landscape that has warded off multiple threats through the years and still remains one of the last best places. Everyone involved wants to protect this land and keep it the way it is. We are working on a bill called the Heritage Act that will keep the landscapes the same in perpetuity.
Many in the conservation movement say that certain bad ideas rarely go away and many good ones never go unchallenged. One of our passengers, a fourth-generation rancher, said to me that the few negative attitudes towards the Act are from people that belong to what he calls the CAVE club. This stands for Citizens Against Virtually Everything. The rancher stated that despite the fact that the Heritage Act is not about ideology or implementing drastic change (if you take the time to read the bill it leaves the land intact), one naysayer was concerned about the “heritage” of the area and his grazing rights, and will vote ‘no’ on the bill. However, in reality, this naysayer has sold almost 90% of his ranch, his heritage, but still kept the grazing rights which amounts to 60 head of cattle every other year. Although this is obviously overstated and a bit narrow-minded, it sure does seem that the CAVE people are hampering our politics these days at both the state and federal level.
What we see on our landscapes in general are changes, and what we see from the air are pronounced changes. Take for instance our recent visit to the Bakken oil and gas fields in North Dakota (see first article). This is an oil play that is transforming not only the landscapes but defining the demographics for generations to come.
As we try to meet our energy challenges and deal with our burgeoning populations, we will have many difficult and important decisions to make. There will have to be room at the table for compromise but nary a chair for the CAVE people.
Bear Trap Canyon, Madison River, Lee Metcalf Wilderness, Montana
Every year, thousands come to Montana to enjoy the wilderness area named in honor of Lee Metcalf. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the designation of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness – 259,000 acres distributed across the Madison Range in southwest Montana. EcoFlight’s flyovers in June highlighted the spectacular alpine peaks, glacial valleys, high mountain lakes and meadows, that make up the Lee Metcalf. Part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the area is home to an abundance of wildlife and includes crucial grizzly habitat.
Crystal River Valley, Colorado
In 2012, American Rivers named the Crystal River (in EcoFlight’s backyard) one of America’s most endangered rivers. The Crystal River flows out of Marble, Colorado, and joins the Roaring Fork River in Carbondale, CO. Way back in 1956 Congress authorized a dam on the Crystal for hydropower and irrigation. Of course in current years it would be used to meet the growing water demands of the energy industry in the adjacent Piceance Basin. With huge shortages of water and ongoing drought, opponents of the project argued that the wild and scenic values of the Crystal River should not be compromised by speculative plans to dam the river and dry it up even further. Just one short year later EcoFlight is thrilled to have provided the overflights that helped put an end to these conditional water rights.
After half a century of no movement on the projected dam, Pitkin County argued in court that the planning period of this purely speculative project had lapsed and it was time to realize the full value of the river without dams. EcoFlight flew a litigation team with advising engineers and scientists to help them prepare critical opinions regarding the project, as part of the county’s efforts to invalidate these rights. In June 2013, the parties reached a settlement that eliminates the water rights and any prospective dams from being constructed on the Crystal.
Tar-sands mining is proposed in the Book Cliffs area, Utah.
The largest tar-sands deposit in the US is located in the heart of Utah – one of the most scenic states in the lower 48. Tar-sands is crude bitumen contained in both rocks and sands formations. Bitumen is a heavy viscous form of crude oil. Tar-sands extraction involves a mining method that typically requires leveling hundreds of square miles of landscapes and wildlife habitat, and uses vast amounts of water. (Southern and Central Utah are true desert = not much, if any, usable water).
Recently EcoFlight took Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, on an aerial overview of both the Roan Plateau in Colorado and energy development in Utah as part of the Sierra Club’s policy work to promote protective regulations and support clean energy. In Utah the overflights focused on proposed tar-sands, oil shale, potash and natural gas in this mineral rich part of Utah. This area is worth a visit to experience the solitude and towering cliffs and desert formations that are so unique and now seriously threatened, as the minerals under this land are already leased.
The area is perhaps better known as Greater Canyonlands – a 1.4 million acre geological formation that extends beyond Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, and which is proposed for protection as a National Monument due to its historic and scientific resources, in addition to its sheer beauty and fragility as a landscape. The landscape will undoubtedly be destroyed by the proposed tar-sands and uranium mining, oil and gas development, and constant off-road vehicle abuse.
EcoFlight has plans to overfly the tar-sands and oil-sands development in Alberta,Canada in August. Alberta’s landscape is already devastated. The images we will bring back from these overflights will be used for educational, scientific and media purposes so that the full magnitude of drilling this untrammeled Greater Canyonlands area in Utah will be fully understood.
Jeffrey Barbee documenting Colorado's gas boom
EcoFlight’s Jane Pargiter is originally from South Africa. This is not the only link between EcoFlight and South Africa. The arid Karoo hinterland (known as the “land of great thirst”) in South Africa, has one of the world’s largest shale gas fields beneath its surface. EcoFlight and Jane’s iconic photos of gas extraction and development in the Rocky Mountain West have been published in a lead article in Cape Town’s Sunday Argus newspaper, to educate South Africans on what might be coming to a landscape near them.
Coincidentally, an internationally acclaimed photojournalist from South Africa joined us on a recent series of ground tours and flights with the Sierra Club over the Roan Plateau and Garfield County’s natural gas development in Colorado. Jeffrey Barbee is a unique individual, originally from Paonia, Colorado, who is reporting on the fracking debate threatening the Karoo. He is documenting our local Colorado natural gas boom to inform folks in the mineral rich heartland of Southern Africa of the threats to their landscapes, and especially their watersheds, if hydraulic fracturing and natural gas drilling make their way there.
Thompson Divide, Colorado
In May, EcoFlight flew Senator Michael Bennet over proposed gas development in Colorado’s Thompson Divide (see Senator Bennet's letter below).
It is ironic that while the United States is posting rapid growth in the waste of natural gas where the fuel is either burned or vented into the atmosphere, oil and gas companies continue to pursue permits to drill for natural gas in wilderness quality areas such as the Thompson Divide.
The 220,000-acre Thompson Divide, southwest of Carbondale, lies in the path of oil and gas development advancing from the west. Its value as wildlife habitat, historic rangeland, a recreational playground and the headwaters of 15 watersheds far exceeds that of the natural gas that could be extracted from it. Oil and gas companies hold about 70 leases within the Thompson Divide area.
This year has seen a lot of grassroots activity surrounding the Thompson Divide, with local ranchers, businesses and conservationists joining together to stop oil and gas development from happening in the area.
In March 2013, Senator Bennet introduced a bill that would permanently withdraw most of the Thompson Divide from future oil and gas leasing.
We applaud Senator Bennet for taking this stand.