Climate Photo of the Week
Bakken oil rush 'round the clock; regulators and citizen groups focus on safety and emissions as fossil fuel drilling takes over the North Dakota prairie.
It's a huge transformation of the northern plains and of American energy sources -- the Bakken oil field of North Dakota and Montana now rivals Texas in oil production. The area of the Bakken near Williston ND now has more than 6,600 wells in a fracking-driven rush that began less than 5 years ago. The state is adding up to 200 new wells each month. World View of Global Warming photographed and reported in the area in late fall, producing a photo story for The Daily Climate.
The Bakken's development has transformed the domestic energy debate. The field, the largest oil formation in the United States, is producing nearly a million barrels a day – more than double the rate just two years ago. One result is that Congress is considering lifting a ban on crude oil exports in place since the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s.
But with the rush came community problems in the region: Runaway population growth, severe housing and school shortages, crime and other disruptions are now common in what had been mostly empty agricultural country,. The social, labor and financial challenges have been substantial.
Also a challenge: Getting the product to refiners. The main route out of the Bakken is via 100-car oil trains, but concerns about the safety of rail transport abound, ignited by July's fatal tank car disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec and a December crash in North Dakota that forced almost 2400 people from their homes. Bakken oil, more volatile than the heavier crude from other regions, is mostly carried in older tank cars which are not as resistant to rupturing as more modern cars. Also, with the Bakken's growth have come increased protests over fossil fuel rail traffic across the West and concerns over the oil boom's negative effect on reduction of greenhouse gases.
Is Keystone XL Pipeline needed on the road to American energy independence -- does it drive us toward more pollution and away from clean energy? Please see below.
The Keystone XL oil pipeline, proposed to carry greenhouse gas-intensive oil sands crude from Canada to U.S refineries, would increase global warming emissions, but not by a significant amount compared to burning other kinds of crude oil, according to an Environmental Impact Statement released by the U.S. State Department on January 31. The EIS concluded there was little additional environmental risk from the pipeline. In the long awaited report the State Department rejected the idea that not building the pipeline would stifle oil extraction from the Alberta tar sands, a major goal of environmental and climate action groups.
Environmental leaders continued to demand that the Keystone XL oil sands crude pipeline not be built, because of the extra level of emissions, pollution risks and the encouragement of demand for fossil fuels in the face of climate change. Threats include pipeline breaches, such as the Exxon pipeline rupture which polluted the Yellowstone River in 2011, and harm to fresh water in the 62 large rivers, lakes and wetlands which the pipe will cross. The 36-inch pipe will be buried about 5 feet deep along a 110 foot construction corridor, but will be tunneled deeper under major rivers like the Yellowstone and Missouri. It would connect to pipelines already built south from Kansas to Texas refineries. Environmental and climate action leaders pointed out that the EIS looks at the oil use in isolation, assuming it has to be used, giving almost no consideration of energy actions to cut back on fossil fuels. Phil Radford of Greenpeace said: “The idea that this pipeline would pose little environmental risk is laughable. If built it will transport the dirtiest fuel on the planet across six states and hundreds of waterways." California Senator Barbara Boxer expressed concern for the health of affected communities.
A final decision will be made by President Obama with advice from Secretary of State John Kerry, after a 90 day comment period by other agencies. The EPA, for example, was critical of the draft EIS in 2013. The President said in June 2013 that "our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." And in his recent State of the Union address, he said that a cleaner energy economy "will require some tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact."
The State Department study calculated that oil sands crude creates "an estimated 17 percent more GHGs on a lifecycle basis than the average barrel of crude oil refined in the United States." It said that American and international markets would continue a demand for the Canadian crude even without the Keystone pipeline. For other issues revealed in the report, including threats to water from oil leaks, see this NRDC blog.
In a special issue, Destruction, art, and the Doomsday Clock, the Bulletin of the Atomic scientists explores how we are influenced for good or ill by the images we see of nuclear proliferation and rapid climate change. Gary Braasch was commissioned to investigate the history and usefulness of the tens of thousands of photographs, charts, graphs, cartoons, illustrations, and moving images that we have seen about global warming. The content of climate imagery falls into several broad categories, Gary writes, and not all of them have been effective in educating people about the dangers and causes of climate change or encouraging civic action and involvement. Documented research and experience shows that a new framing of local climate impacts and positive actions may encourage more people to take action.
Gary Braasch is honored to be among the artists featured in the exhibition Vanishing Ice: Alpine and Polar Landscapes in Art 1775-2012, at the Whatcom Museum, Bellingham WA. The large show offers a glimpse into the rich cultural legacy of the planet’s frozen frontiers. International in scope, it traces the impact of glaciers, icebergs and fields of ice on artists’ imaginations. Curator Barbara Matilsky chose Gary's set of then and now images of the Athabasca Glacier in Canada for display, along with a science-based caption and copy of gary's book Earth Under Fire.
The U.S. government energy policy of "All of the Above" plays out grandly across the Western landscape. It spans from the upper great plains of Montana and North Dakota, where crude oil production was over 900,000 barrels a day in August, and in Wyoming where coal mining provided most of the US supply -- across to Oregon and Washington's Columbia River where hydropower has been created since the 1930s but wind is a major energy source now. World View of Global Warming's detailed photo story about the Powder River Basin coal region is the first in a new series on The Daily Climate about western energy today. Thanks to Scientific American and Grist for re-posting this story for their readers.
And look for more on energy and how to be an active, concerned citizen on our Action Pages.
Other recent stories available on World View of Global Warming
A lone scientist reveals the meaning of a melting Arctic Ocean: “You don’t have to care about Arctic seabirds or pack ice,” George Divoky told World View of Global Warming, because the Arctic is not the only place where climate change is causing problems. “Species are struggling to deal with it,” he says, “and we are going to be in the same situation.” Please see story and portfolio here.
In the Pacific Northwest, the oyster industry, with an $84 million yearly value and 3,000 employees, is already seeing and reacting to the effects of unhealthy ocean water.
Story and photos here.
The fabled Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan stands alone among nations for its strong Buddhist faith, Constitutional concern for the happiness of its people, a monarchy that gave up power to establish democracy, its preservation of ecosystem,s and as the only nation to sequester much more carbon than it emits. In recent years, Bhutan, like other Himalayan areas, has seen an increase in landslides due to heavier rains, and some glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) as glaciers retreat. Our report from a visit to this unique nation, which faces difficult choices among ecosystems and energy needs, may be seen here.
Photography and text Copyright © 2005 - 2017 (and before) Gary Braasch All rights reserved. Use of photographs in any manner without permission is prohibited by US copyright law. Photography is available for license to publications and other uses. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. View more of Gary Braasch's photography here.