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Marcus Griswold’s Blog

Fracking in the Bakken threatens Missouri River watershed health

Marcus Griswold

Posted April 9, 2014

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Science continues to point to the risks of groundwater contamination from oil and gas development, not just from oil, but from the salty liquid waste called brine. The U.S. Geological Survey recently released a study highlighting groundwater contamination from oil and gas development in the East Poplar oil field in Montana. We reviewed this study, which demonstrates contamination resulting from a legacy of inadequate management practices due to conventional oil extraction; a process that left the Ft. Peck Indian Reservation in Montana without clean drinking water. Just downstream of this contamination is the Bakken, quickly becoming one of the largest shale oil and gas extraction efforts in the United States - development from hydraulic fracturing here is just getting off the ground.

Can we expect the future of the Bakken to follow that of the East Poplar field?

When asked, the study author provided us with a context for this.

  • The Bakken has similar oil-related features to the East Poplar field.
  • Brine in the Bakken is as, or more salty than in the East Poplar field.
  • “Brine handling and disposal has resulted in groundwater and surface-water contamination in the East Poplar oil field area. Similar brine disposal and handling methods could possibly have similar results in other parts of the Williston Basin.” The Williston Basin is the geologic feature that includes the Bakken oil field.   

Conditions in the Bakken appear to be similar to East Poplar.

Hydraulic fracturing in the Bakken is nascent, only really getting started in 2011, but now producing a million barrels a day. However, the extraction process is expected to last for the next few decades. Groundwater contamination, such as seen in the East Poplar field, occurs slowly and often silently, but once contaminated is very expensive to clean. This could become a long term issue for communities and highly valued natural resources.


Since the late 2000s uncontained oil and brine spills in the Bakken have been on the rise. These uncontained spills flow out of the well pads and coat the land. In the wrong conditions, these spills seep into groundwater and into wetlands and streams. Unfortunately, inadequate management practices are status quo in the Bakken. Wastewater is stored in pits or injected deep into the ground with little understanding of the long term implications. In the past month, two substantial oil spills in the Bakken have occurred, totaling more than 35,000 gallons. Even more concerning, in the past year, more than 1,700 spills have occurred with nearly a quarter of these spills uncontained. These uncontained spills have produced 1.2 million gallons of oil and 1.3 million gallons of salty brine in 2013. Given that the North Dakota State Department of Health does not disclose the exact location of spills, no one knows their impact on fish, wildlife, and people. 


In short, inadequately enforced policies and management practices in the Bakken place people and ecosystems at threat. Given the landscape, the future of the Bakken could follow the path of the East Poplar field.  

Why should we care?

Thousands of oil wells in the Bakken surround some of the most important fisheries habitat in the Missouri River watershed.Spills are common near the River. While not drilling directly in the River, operators place wells in the floodplain and send horizontal wells under the mainstem of the Missouri River. Even inside North Dakota's own designated area of interest for natural resource protection along the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea, there are 448 active oil and gas wells and another 161 before spud, no not the potato, the process right before drilling occurs. Another 200 wells next to the River are marked "Confidential" meaning the public doesn't have access to the records. In all more than 800 wells directly place the health of the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea at risk.   


Map of horizontal drilling along the Missouri River as of February 2014.

The Missouri River, as it flows through the Bakken provides anglers with the highest catch rates in the region for walleye, sauger, and northern pike. It serves as important staging and spawning habitat for 16 other fish species, including many species in decline, such as paddlefish and sturgeon. Fisheries scientists have warned that development within or in proximity to this area should be carefully scrutinized before it is allowed to proceed.  Recent policy encourages the state to consider these fragile resources, but mainly on public lands and does not mandate any action such as best management practices or mitigation.

Many communities and farmers in the region also depend on limited supplies of groundwater in a place where groundwater levels are declining and nearby streams and rivers only flow part of the year.  Few policies are in place to protect landowners from any contamination of their drinking water or livestock ponds. As wells become more commonplace, spills will increasingly encroach on these sources. It is at this point that policies and voluntary action may be too late.

What should we do?

Without any need to adjust policy, state agencies and industry could voluntarily protect important habitats and groundwater sources through existing oil and water permit review processes. Not only would this reduce future risk to the states and industry, thereby increasing accountability, but it would increase community stewardship in a region where industry has settled in for at least the next few decades. Best management practices could be put in place now to ensure the protection of clean and abundant water for fish, wildlife, and people.

Industry, particularly those who live and work in the Bakken, can consider what they hope to leave behind as a legacy of their work - leaving two possible scenarios. A decimated hunting and fishing industry and limited access to clean water by local communities. Or, perhaps a legacy of balanced resources, one where land and water that provides the greatest benefits for fish, wildlife, and people is left intact for future generations, the children of those who work in the Bakken oil fields now.  

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Michael BerndtsonApr 10 2014 10:45 AM

NRDC Switchboard is starting to freak me out. I'm enjoying more posts. Nicely done.

In support of the comment made about farmers being impacted by oil and gas activities in the post, here's an interesting article from Ag Week (not a periodical on Oil and Gas's enviro-pusillanimous blog watch list, btw):

"ND landowners say protections ‘failing miserably"

Anecdotally speaking wise, multi-generational North Dakota farming families are starting to get spooked. We're not talking pop up urban vegetable plots. Or gentleman farmer/hedge fund manager owned agro-plexes in Illinois. We're talking families who actually farm many thousands of acres and have so for at least 100 years.

jamie edmondsApr 15 2014 11:05 AM

That could be the worst, most incomprehensible map I've ever seen. Good story but seriously, don't publish a map that bad...

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