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Environmentalists, energy industry debate fossil fuel policies

A protestor stands before a police line on North Dakota Hwy. 1806 on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, north of Cannon Ball. Michael Vosburg / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — A longstanding conflict between environmentalists and the energy industry boils down to finding a balance between fossil fuel extraction and dependency with climate change and other long-term impacts on the environment.

Environmentalists say the surging energy industry contributes to climate change by encouraging fossil fuel dependency and releasing harmful gasses and chemicals into the environment. Industry officials argue fossil fuels feed the state’s economy and create numerous jobs.

A report from the United Nations said the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is linked to the average global temperature — both have been rising since the Industrial Revolution. The report said carbon dioxide, which is largely created when fossil fuels are burned, accounts for two-thirds of all greenhouse gases. Fossil fuels include finite resources like oil, natural gas and coal, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

A United Nations Climate Change report showed an average temperature change of 1.5 degrees Celsius worldwide is expected between 2010 and 2052 if trends continue. The report said this could cause severe droughts, flooding and extreme weather.

Tensions between environmentalists and the energy industry have led to protests, including at the Dakota Access Pipeline site near Cannon Ball, and the proposed Enbridge Line 3 pipeline near Bemidji, Minn. The energy industry is facing regulatory changes at the state and national level, especially concerning methane, coal and fuel standards.

Todd Leake, an Emerado, N.D., farmer and chairman of the Sierra Club’s Dacotah Chapter, said climate change is more obvious in other parts of the planet than in North Dakota or Minnesota because of the states’ location. He said areas such as the Arctic poles are showing rapid changes because warmer weather is melting ice caps.

“The fact is we put 10 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere every year worldwide from manmade sources, and the biosphere has to digest that in one form or another and it can’t necessarily do that,” Leake said. “So the physics of this is just that if we put that much carbon into the atmosphere, we’re going to change the atmosphere and change the climate of the planet.”

Industry impact

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said climate change has been ongoing for hundreds of years. The oil industry is progressive about making changes to reduce the environmental impact, he said

North Dakota is the country’s second-largest producer of oil, according to the NDPC.

Ness said the oil industry employs 20 percent of the state’s workforce and pays 30 percent of the state’s wages. Nearly 80,000 people moved to North Dakota during the past decade to seek jobs in the energy industry.

“The industry is a big piece of the North Dakota economy and it benefits people across the state,” said NDPC Communications Director Kristen Hamman. “The tax revenues are used all over the state for infrastructure in different communities. We want people to know that we are doing everything we can to produce the resource in a clean and safe way and to transport the resource — pipeline safety, those are priorities for us.”

Leake acknowledged the economic side of oil and gas but said our culture cannot continue to rely so heavily on fossil fuels. Data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration said the United States leads the world in oil consumption, consuming about 20 percent of all oil.

The U.S. is also one of the leading countries for developing new technology for energy generation, Leake said.

Ness said although there has been some push for renewable energy, it hasn’t impacted the oil and gas industry. He also noted that it takes a significant amount of resources and energy to build infrastructure for renewable energy.

Changing regulations

President Donald Trump, who is skeptical about climate change, has taken steps to remove regulations implemented by the Obama administration.

Since taking office, he has removed regulations on emissions at coal power plants, reduced requirements on oil and gas companies to monitor methane releases, removed vehicle fuel-efficiency standards and cut funding for climate and energy research.

Ness said the federal methane rule was a “duplicative roadblock” for North Dakota because state standards already required greater capture. He said the NDPC supports Trump’s federal repeals because “the states know best,” and federal policies are burdensome and broad.

In November, state regulations increased to require 88 percent of gas to be captured.

North Dakota has invested about $18 billion in gas-capture infrastructure and technology since 2008, Ness said. This year, he said the industry will invest another $2.5 billion.

North Dakota is a leader in emission reductions and has some of the highest clean air ratings in the country from the Environmental Protection Agency, he said.

Lisa DeVille, president and founder of the Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights, said she’s already seeing the immediate impacts of the oil industry in Mandaree, where she lives, and worries for the environment’s future.

The Fort Berthold Reservation, where Mandaree sits, has the highest levels of flaring in the state. She said the oil wells come at a heavy cost to the environment — oil spills could poison nearby water supplies and saltwater spills contaminate agricultural land.

DeVille said respiratory illnesses have increased in the area, and both she and her husband have become ill from breathing in the chemicals released from flaring.

She said it’s a little-discussed problem, because the draw of oil money often overpowers long-term environmental concerns such as climate change, adding resources are being shipped out of the state so others can profit from them.

“It’s frustrating because all our people, that’s all they see now is money. … People don’t care about change or what to worry about in the future or things about the long term — they care about now,” she said.