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The Bakken, an Oil Boom, and Bison: Studying Air Quality in our National Parks

Written by Ashley Evanoski-Cole, 2015-2016 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and PhD Candidate in the Department of Atmospheric Science.

North Dakota is known for its plains and rolling hills, agriculture, cold winters and sparse population.  However, the oil boom has transformed western North Dakota from the rural Badlands into a heavily industrialized region bustling with oil and construction workers.  Truck traffic jams are now common in the region’s small towns.  The growing infrastructure and housing construction has struggled to keep up with the rapidly growing population of oil workers.

The development and economic feasibility of new extraction techniques such as hydraulic fracturing enabled the explosion of oil drilling in the Bakken formation.  Just in the last decade, oil production has increased substantially and North Dakota is producing over 1 million barrels of oil per day.  The Bakken formation produces mainly oil so natural gas is burned off in a process called flaring.  From space, the light pollution from flaring and lights on the well pads has increased so much that the Bakken region looks similar to a major city at night.

North Dakota is also the land explored by Theodore Roosevelt and Lewis and Clark as well as the residence of Sacagawea whose histories are preserved in the national parks and historic sites throughout the state.  The industrialization from the oil and gas development and the impact of the harmful air pollutants generated from these activities on the national and historic parks is not well understood.  To answer this question, our research group conducted a field study to measure the air pollution in the Bakken region.

Our group collected air samples in North Dakota and Montana in the winters of 2012-2013 and 2013-2014.  We chose the winter because levels of particulate matter (PM), one pollutant that the US Environmental Protection Agency has deemed harmful to humans, can be higher in the winter because it condenses in cold temperatures much like water.  Using our vacuum-like sampling equipment, PM is sucked out of the air and collected onto a filter. Back in the laboratory, the PM is dissolved from the filter in water. This liquid PM can then be analyzed to determine the chemical composition which gives us important information to identify where the PM is coming from.

Collecting air measurements in the Bakken region in the winter is a unique challenge.  Theodore Roosevelt National Park was our home base for our measurements, but we collected air samples in national parks and other protected federal land across the region of oil drilling.  This is an isolated section of the country and we did not have cell phone service at many of our sampling locations.  The frigid winter temperatures also presented challenges to operating our equipment outside, with temperatures reaching as cold as -33°F during our study.  My eyelids temporarily froze shut one extra cold and windy day while changing out our filter samples!  In the national park, we also had to worry about bison creating a road block or getting too curious with our equipment set up outside. 

Our measurements show that PM concentrations are higher now in the Bakken region than before the oil boom when the region was predominantly agricultural.  We also used the knowledge of the wind patterns to determine that the high levels of PM occurred when the wind was calm and slowly traveled within the Bakken region.  This will be described in more detail in a forthcoming publication.  We also used knowledge of unique gases, such as specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that we measured, to show that oil drilling activities are impacting the air quality in the national parks and other federal lands in the Bakken region.  

Theodore Roosevelt said "We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation."  His sentiments still ring true today, particularly in the North Dakota Badlands.  As our country grows, care must be taken to ensure that our greatest natural resources – our national parks – are protected and preserved for generations to come.

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