Reducing the Harmful Impacts of Oil and Gas Development Near Theodore Roosevelt National Park

A fracking well outside of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

A fracking well outside of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Photo © David Gaylor/Dreamstime.

“I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” –Theodore Roosevelt

Would Theodore Roosevelt still be inspired to become America’s greatest conservationist president if he experienced western North Dakota today? The land he lived on is now preserved as Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but a dramatic increase in the amount of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for oil and natural gas in the area is having ill effects on the park.

NPCA has been working hard to raise the alarm about the harmful effects of North Dakota’s fracking boom on Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Unfortunately for the park, the latest science continues to validate our concerns.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

An ongoing study by Colorado State University and the National Park Service found significant spikes in the park’s concentrations of airborne pollutants, including ammonium nitrate, ammonium sulfate, and black carbon. These pollutants form haze and soot, impairing visibility at the park. If concentrations continue to rise, it could potentially affect people’s health.

Western North Dakota overlies the resource-rich Bakken shale formation, where recent developments in fracking techniques have led to a rapid increase in development for oil and gas. Developers have drilled more than 8,000 wells since the boom began, and the area could see as many as 40,000 wells on or near federal lands surrounding the park before the rush to frack is over.

This boom in oil and gas development threatens Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s air quality on several fronts. Nearly 30 percent of natural gas extracted from wells is flared off, a process by which excess fuel is intentionally burned to dispose of it, releasing a steady stream of particulate sulfates and nitrates into the air. At the same time, emissions from the energy needed to operate the drilling rigs and the thousands of trucks needed to transport oil and gas is increasing the release of nitrogen oxide.

A crew fracks the Bakken Formation, August 2011. Copyright Joshua Doubek.

All this activity has resulted in pollutant concentrations that are significantly higher than in other rural western regions, including heavily drilled western Wyoming. Where views across the starkly beautiful Badlands were crystal clear for 140 miles in Roosevelt’s time, air pollution in the West has cast a dull haze across the Badlands, reducing views to 33 to 90 miles. Roosevelt would have a very different experience today.

Air quality is not the only issue. Fracking can also harm water quality if toxic fracking water seeps into streams or underground aquifers. Fracking requires large amounts of water, which lessens the amount of water available for native plants and wildlife in the park. The development of roads, well pads, and other infrastructure fragments habitat for wildlife coming in and out of the park, including deer, elk, and sharp-tailed grouse. Finally, the experience enjoyed by visitors to the park—more than 600,000 in 2011—is diminished by the noise, flaring, pollution, and industrial-scale development creeping ever closer to the park’s borders.

A large part of the problem around Theodore Roosevelt National Park stems from the fact that officials did not adequately consider ways to protect the park as the drilling boom exploded. The U.S. Forest Service manages the Little Missouri National Grassland area surrounding the park, and its sister agency in the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), shares duties with the Forest Service on public lands leasing and development activities. Unfortunately, the agencies have not considered the cumulative impact of thousands of new wells on the surrounding landscape when issuing permits.

In some places across the country, the BLM is trying to improve its permitting process with a “start from the smart” approach that offers a more thorough assessment of potential wells, called Master Leasing Plans (MLPs). These plans recognize that our public lands encompass a variety of important natural and cultural resources, and that uses other than oil and gas–including air, land, water, wildlife, cultural resources, and recreation–must also be considered when managing oil and gas development.

By continuing to press for responsible energy development across the west via the MLP process, NPCA wants to help future conservationists experience these magnificent parks in their true nature—the way Theodore Roosevelt did.

About the Author

Nick is manager of NPCA's Landscape Conservation Program