From North Dakota to Paris With Love
November 25, 2015
Kandi Mossett plans to accompany an extraordinarily influential lobbyist to the United Nations 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21): her 2-year-old daughter, Aiyana. Mossett, a member of the Native American Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA) Nation, has spent most of her life on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, which, since 2006, has been the center of what would become the second-largest domestic oil boom in U.S. history. It came with little warning or government regulation, but a lot of jobs and money followed. So did a host of climatic, environmental, public health, social, political and even economic costs. “It’s been like death by a thousand cuts,” says Mossett, the native energy and climate campaign organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), and one of an estimated 20,000 nongovernmental organization delegates to the U.N. conference.
Mossett hopes Aiyana’s presence will force President Barack Obama and every other head of state and government negotiator present to see with their own eyes “the people who they are making decisions for…those of us who live on the front lines of fossil fuel extraction. Those of us who will bear the full consequences of their decisions.”
Obama is pushing for an ambitious accord at the COP21 in Paris, and to do that he will need the help of activists like Mossett and the tens of thousands of others in Paris she is joining in protests, panels and more to not only convince their governments to sign an accord but also ensure that commitments made in Paris are implemented, enforced and expanded upon at home. Mossett, a veteran of two COPs, shares the certainty of many in Paris that a historic agreement will be reached, one that commits governments to the first-ever legally binding international climate accord. But she is concerned that it will not go nearly far enough.
The heart of the North Dakota oil boom is lit with wild flames, night and day. They appear everywhere and all at once—bright yellow and occasionally black bursts of fire roll low along the earth, blown by wind, or shoot 20 feet or more into the sky. The release of natural gas is accompanied by a sound like a rush of air and on occasion an overwhelming stench of sulfur.
“These were never here before,” Mossett says, pointing with her chin to the flares as she drives south out of New Town, leaving her mother’s home behind her and heading deeper into the farms and cattle ranches that, along with the omnipresent oil operations, dominate the 980,000-acre reservation. Her uncle lives on and works a 360-acre parcel of land here originally owned by her grandfather. After pulling into his dirt driveway, Mossett shares a video on her phone of a fire that erupted across the road a week ago. Heavy black smoke and flames pour out of the wellhead for over six hours before finally being brought under control .
Mossett grew up in homes all over the reservation. She moved to Montana two years ago when Aiyana’s father got a job there, but work and family frequently bring her back. She often considers moving back, but she says, “I worry about Aiyana’s health when we’re here, what’s in the air she’s breathing, the water she drinks.” Her voice trails off. Her toddler, watching a movie in the backseat of the car, coughs painfully, as if on cue.
The vast majority of North Dakota oil production comes from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, including from the Bakken Formation underneath the reservation. It’s common for oil and natural gas to reside together, but in North Dakota drillers are primarily interested in the more abundant oil. When they’re not required to build the infrastructure to capture and sell the natural gas—such as pipes—the cheapest option is to burn it off at the wellhead.
Because of a lack of regulation, nearly 40 times more natural gas was flared or vented (released directly into the air without burning) in North Dakota in 2014 than in 2005, with 102,855 million cubic feet released in 2014, almost half the total for the entire country. The surge brought the U.S. the dubious distinction of joining the list of the world’s top five worst flarers, which are, in descending order: Russia, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq and, since 2012, the U.S. The scenic buttes of the reservation’s famed North Dakota Badlands, where wild mustangs still roam, are now alight with the flames of flares so numerous and bright that they’re visible from space .
Flaring emits carbon dioxide and methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas with a global warming potential more than 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. Flaring also produces a slew of other pollutants linked to serious public health effects, including asthma, cancer and early death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes. The pollutants can harm animals, crops and vegetation; land in flaring areas in Nigeria, for example, has lost fertility because of soil acidification.
Newsweek/November 25, 2015
Photo: Natural gas burns off an oil well in what the industry calls “flaring,” throughout Fort Berthold Indian Reservation near New Town, North Dakota on August 13, 2014. The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations are the three affiliated tribes represented on Fort Berthold, which is also at the epicenter of the fracking and oil boom. LINDA DAVIDSON/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY