Oil Bonanza Fueled Growth a Mixed Bag for North Dakota

Using data from the twelve months leading up to July, the Census Bureau found today that North Dakota is the fastest growing state in the union.

Its population grew by over 2.2 percent.

At 699,628 residents, however, its is still the third smallest state in the country.

The growth is largely thanks to a massive energy boom in the western half of the state. In July, according to Census Bureau and Energy Information Administration data, North Dakota produced the most oil per capita by a prairie mile. With the second highest crude output in the nation, the state produced almost 30 barrels of oil for each resident — about a barrel of oil per resident every day in July. Alaska, in distant second, produced roughly 17.6 barrels per person that month.

With its fast growing population and lowest unemployment rate in the nation — at 3.1 percent in November — North Dakota is the “poster child” for those who see the environmental regulators as the spawn of Satan. Much of the oil, after all, was economically unattainable until horizontal drilling and fracking made economic sense.

ProPublica, however, published an extensive investigation into damage wrought by North Dakota’s oil boom. That report throws cold water on those who use the state to trumpet the benefits of a laissez-faire energy policy.

According to data obtained by ProPublica, oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids in 2011, about as many as in the previous two years combined. Many more illicit releases went unreported, state regulators acknowledge, when companies dumped truckloads of toxic fluid along the road or drained waste pits illegally.

State officials say most of the releases are small. But in several cases, spills turned out to be far larger than initially thought, totaling millions of gallons. Releases of brine, which is often laced with carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals, have wiped out aquatic life in streams and wetlands and sterilized farmland. The effects on land can last for years, or even decades.

Compounding such problems, state regulators have often been unable — or unwilling — to compel energy companies to clean up their mess, our reporting showed.

Under North Dakota regulations, the agencies that oversee drilling and water safety can sanction companies that dump or spill waste, but they seldom do: They have issued fewer than 50 disciplinary actions for all types of drilling violations, including spills, over the past three years.

The report is well worth reading. It delves into farmers’ tales of ruination, social problems caused by the resulting population influx, and details the environmental havoc — problems that could remain long after the oil wells run dry.

In other words, there’s another side to the Drill Baby, Drill success story that North Dakota is supposed to be. Officials from other states who think that fracking is the answer to their economic woes simply because of North Dakota’s growth should proceed with caution.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.