Center for Park Research Report
Published April 2013
Balancing Energy Needs, Nature, and America’s National Heritage
Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) is a relatively new extraction method that is now responsible for 90 percent of domestic oil and gas production, with thousands of wells peppering the countryside. The number of wells is expected to skyrocket during the next two decades. The Energy Information Administration estimates that the United States has 2,119 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 25.2 billion barrels of crude oil recoverable through fracking. What will history say about this innovation? What will the impacts be on America’s public lands—especially our cherished national parks?
No one knows for sure. Most Americans aren’t witness to fracking operations, which typically take place in remote, rural locations inhabited (and visited) by few people. Most North Dakotans, for example, live within eight miles of the Minnesota border, so they’ve never laid eyes on the fracking wells that are springing up in the western part of the state, near Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Other national parks in relatively undeveloped regions have also seen fracking arrive at their doorstep: From Glacier National Park’s eastern boundary, visitors can throw a stone and hit any of 16 exploratory wells and their associated holding tanks, pump jacks, and machinery that is capable of forcing millions of gallons of pressurized fluids into energy deposits hiding thousands of feet beneath the earth.
Yet even the experts can’t predict fracking’s impacts. Will it contaminate the air we breathe in national parks? Will it harm native wildlife and the water and forests they depend on for survival? Will it damage the resources we value in our national parks? The answers are just beginning to emerge.
Consequently, the National Parks Conservation Association recommends that policymakers require a measured, thoughtful approach to fracking, especially near national parks and in their surrounding landscapes. We must make every effort to understand and anticipate potential consequences—before they become irreversible.
Case studies highlights:
Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota — It has likely experienced the ill effects of fracking more than any other park.
- Oil rigs are visible from several parts of the park – and natural gas flaring has punctured what was once one of the darkest night skies in the entire park system.
- Along the boundary of the South Unit signs warn motorists about hazardous levels of hydrogen sulfide around the wells. The impacts from the estimated 45,000 wells due at “full build-out” could seriously impair the park’s mandate to protect its undeveloped lands and wildlife, perhaps most noticeably by severing connections between the park and the surrounding Little Missouri National Grasslands, impeding migration routes and fragmenting habitat for pronghorn, mule and white-tailed deer, elk, and sharp-tailed grouse.
- A well has been staked 100 feet from the parking lot of Elkhorn Ranch, the home of Theodore Roosevelt in the late 1800s and the place that helped inspire his conservation ethic.
- Heavy truck traffic is likely to dramatically increase in areas servicing wells. The noise and dust associated with these vehicles can have a large impact on the experience of park visitors.
Glacier National Park in Montana —Oil and gas extraction on the east side of Glacier would harm the park in a number of ways. While the pace of development has temporarily slowed as a result of one company pulling out, the potential for heavy development of oil and gas extraction remains.
- The front door to Glacier already has been proposed for industrialization of a scale that would have serious impacts on the park’s pristine air quality.
- Increased industrial development around the park would threaten wildlife – especially grizzly bears – through a loss of secure habitat free of roads and human development, which is key to the future of the bear. Increased risk of water pollution and the vast amounts of water needed for fracking imperil the already endangered bull trout.
- Visitors to Glacier already can see newly-drilled wells from the park’s mountain heights. Should the industry achieve anticipated full-field development, the scenic vistas and dark night skies at the park will be lost.
Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming — Though Wyoming’s current boom in natural gas development has only come within 50-100 miles from Grand Teton, the effects are already being felt in that park.
- Habitat fragmentation caused by oil and gas development is greatly contributing to the blockage of the pronghorn migration from the Upper Green River Valley near the park, and threatens the movement of other species like Greater Sage-Grouse and Mule Deer between the park and other habitat they need to survive.
- Evidence suggests that the concentrated drilling operations in the Pinedale area south of Grand Teton are associated with regional ozone problems in Grand Teton’s gateway, with pollution recorded at levels that cause respiratory problems.
Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and the Obed Wild and Scenic River in Kentucky and Tennessee — Oil and gas development has existed for many years in and adjacent to these two parks, but exploratory fracking wells are now being drilled near park boundaries.
- If fracking in is expanded in on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau the potential for water contamination in these river parks is significant.
- The footprint from 4-acre well pads and the associated road construction would impact wildlife habitat and diminish the natural feel of the park.
Upper Delaware Scenic and Recreational River and Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — A current drilling moratorium is in place by Delaware River Basin Commission, but it could be lifted. Test wells drilled just outside of the park border in New York State confirm that gas resources in the area are plentiful.
- These parks are among America’s most visited because they provide a peaceful respite on the busy East Coast. Energy extraction and infrastructure, and its associated noise, development and visual impacts, would completely impair the parks’ natural calm.
- Water degradation resulting from potential groundwater contamination or wastewater spills would seriously threaten wildlife in one of the last major undammed rivers in the eastern U.S.