NDSU Study Examines Perspectives On North Dakota Oil Development

The latest round of oil development in North Dakota’s Bakken region has raised a variety of issues and concerns, according to new research led by Devan McGranahan, assistant professor in the School of Natural Resource Sciences.

McGranahan recently co-wrote a paper, titled “Reflections on a boom: Perceptions of energy development impacts in the Bakken oil patch inform environmental science and policy priorities,” published in Science of the Total Environment. The study was funded by the NDSU President’s Office and administered through NDSU Research Development.

The research examined farmers’ and ranchers’ thoughts on how the most recent shale oil boom is impacting western North Dakota.

The work involved a multi-disciplinary team of McGranahan; Felix Fernando, post-doctoral fellow at the University of Dayton, Ohio, and former sociology post-doc at Dickinson Research Extension Center who earned his doctorate at NDSU; and Meghan Kirkwood, NDSU assistant professor of visual arts.

“As a researcher, a unique element of the project was the focus on allowing residents of the Bakken oil patch to identify and prioritize their own issues and concerns,” McGranahan said. “As land-grant researchers located six hours away from the heart of the Bakken, we run the risk of allowing personal perspectives or the media to influence our research questions, which might not reflect actual concerns about local impacts to agricultural and natural resources or communities. We specifically designed our study with a two-part process to set up ‘usable science,’ which we hope will not only give voice to landowners and farm/ranch operators, but also help shape future research focus towards those issues that most concern rural residents.”

The researchers held focus group sessions with resource management and community leaders in McKenzie, Mountrail and Williams Counties, followed by an extensive survey of local landowners and operators.

Survey respondents were asked to identify major concerns about energy impacts to agricultural and natural resources. Their responses related to water pollution, farm and ranch productivity, lost land area, traffic and dust, and relationships between residents and the energy industry. In matters related to social concerns, survey respondents most frequently identified crime, strain on local services and the changing demographics and lifestyle in rural North Dakota communities.

The study concluded that Bakken region residents clearly perceive impacts on their farms and ranches through their infrastructure, services to their communities and their way of life. While recognizing positive economic conditions and job creation for the area, residents are concerned about the impacts on natural resources and strained services and utilities.

The researchers also suggested local attitudes might improve through greater trust in state and local regulators and better corporate relations with oil companies.

According to McGranahan, the multi-disciplinary approach to the research was important. “The paper relies upon contributions from each of our specialties – range science, sociology and landscape photography – to get the data and tell the story,” he said.

Science of the Total Environment is an Elsevier international journal for original scientific research about the environment.

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