In North Dakota’s arid badlands, huge tanker trucks rumble along the hundreds of new dirt roads that web the mottled landscape. They roll over slotted metal grates that keep cows from wandering onto drilling pads. A metal sign pockmarked with bullet holes reads, “Little Missouri National Grassland: Land of Many Uses.”
Telling public land from private is not easy on the shores of the Missouri River's largest reservoir, Lake Sakakawea, N.D. Drilling rigs and wells for oil and gas lie in every direction, rammed into farmers' old crop fields and the U.S. Forest Service's brushy, wild hillsides. Some are pulling oil and gas out of the ground a couple hundred feet from the lake.
Pipelines bearing oil are everywhere underground, occasionally exposed when they span eroded gullies. Near one abandoned well pad, a sign pointing out toward the lake reads in huge block lettering: “Petroleum pipeline. Do not anchor or dredge.”
As more wells penetrate the formation below the state, estimates of the amount of oil trapped there continue to increase. Missouri River water is a crucial ingredient in this boom that is making North Dakota rich.
Drilling companies require lots and lots of water to tap into the oil and gas that lie below this barren landscape. The fossil fuels are sandwiched between two huge pieces of underground shale thousands of feet below North Dakota and Montana. Cracking open the layers and releasing the fuel requires an average of 2 million gallons of water per well, according to the North Dakota Oil and Gas Commission. At least 5,000 wells have been drilled around the reservoir.
In late April, the U.S. Geological Survey released a new estimate of the amount of recoverable oil trapped below Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. This huge deposit is called the Bakken and Three Forks formation, and it contains about 7.4 billion recoverable barrels--double what the agency estimated in 2008.
This underground petroleum sea is the largest continuous deposit in the continental U.S. The drilling boom around the Missouri River shows no signs of stopping.
Since 2010, the Army Corps of Engineers has been trying to figure out how much the water in this process should cost oil and gas companies. The Corps says this process will take 10 years. For now, the companies can apply to use this taxpayer-funded resource for free.
The Corps controls the six dams that hold back the Missouri River’s main channel. The Corps built them between the 1930s and 1960s, and Congress authorized their use specifically for flood control, navigation, hydroelectric power, water supply, water quality, irrigation, recreation and fish and wildlife.
According to a Corp report, "municipal and industrial use" falls under the "water supply" category listed above. That water was expected to be used for farming and ranching along the Missouri River, but the demand never materialized as expected.
This tremendous sprawl of oil and gas drilling around the lake uses only a small percentage of the total water in the Missouri River system. The North Dakota State Water Commission estimates estimates that water demand for drilling is at 0.15 percent of all the Missouri River water flowing past the lake.
Even so, Lake Sakakawea is the only lake in the area large enough serve such a thirsty industry. All the other water sources in the area have already been spoken for. “Except for the Missouri River system," reads a 2010 report from the North Dakota State Water Commission, "most of the state’s surface waters are heavily appropriated and are not good prospects for large-scale long-term sustainable water supplies.”
In May 2010, the Corps wanted to keep new users from drawing water off the lake until it started charging them for it. North Dakota politicians, including a sitting and former governor, called it an encroachment on the state's water rights. The Corps quickly reversed its decision, the Bismarck Tribune reported.
The Missouri Department of Natural Resources criticized the reversal, arguing that there could not have been any extra water in the reservoir system because of the recent drought. The department cited "negative effects" of the reduced water downstream, but did not cite any specific evidence of how the state was affected.
On Dec. 5, 2012, the Corps made its first temporary agreement with International Western Co. to use up to 4,950 acre-feet of water storage in Lake Sakakawea for its operations.
Chris Wiehl, project engineer with the Corps’ Omaha Division, said the Corps was rushing to meet old demand:
“We had a demand in 2010 for the surplus water agreements that we are currently issuing today,” Wiehl said. “We found a way to get those underway right away.”
While free water is a boon to industry, there is no indication that the companies would quit drilling if they were made to pay for it.
“The water doesn’t have to be that cheap for the industry to still use it,” said Jean-Phillipe Nicot, a research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas, Austin. “The profit per unit volume of water is so much larger for the industry than it is for farmers.”
Spills and leaks
Many North Dakota towns rely on Sakakawea for drinking water, and the lake hosts fish populations important for recreation, said Joel Galloway, chief hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey’s North Dakota Water Science Center.
With so many oil and gas pipelines running near and beneath the lake, spills and leaks are a concern.
“That’s one of our most important water supplies in our state,” he said.
The North Dakota Department of Health uses several methods to watch for spills. Over the past three years, the department has been testing water from about five points across the lake. They test once a month during the spring and fall and twice a month during the summer.
Spills are reported almost every day, said Mike Ell, program director with the North Dakota Department of Health. So far, the department has not found any oilfield chemicals in the lake itself, but some have turned up in the upstream rivers.
Ell thinks North Dakotans are not willing to accept a trade-off between the water quality of their most crucial reservoir and the economic benefits that come with a fossil fuel boom.
“They’re looking at agencies such as ours so they can have both,” Ell said.
From November to May, the agencies stop monitoring the lake because of safety concerns. The lake freezes over, and venturing out on the thin ice is dangerous.
But even in the bitter cold winter, the drilling continues. The tan pumpjacks that draw oil and gas from the wells never stop their relentless bobbing, up and down, like thirsty metal birds .
Visit the website of the Missouri Drone Journalism Program for more information.