Brine Contamination to Aquatic Resources from Oil and Gas Development in the Williston Basin, United States

The Williston Basin, which includes parts of Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota in the United States and the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada, has been a leading domestic oil and gas producing region for more than one-half a century. Currently, there are renewed efforts to develop oil and gas resources from deep geologic formations, spurred by advances in recovery technologies and economic incentives associated with the price of oil. Domestic oil and gas production has many economic benefits and provides a means for the United States to fulfill a part of domestic energy demands; however, environmental hazards can be associated with this type of energy production in the Williston Basin, particularly to aquatic resources (surface water and shallow groundwater) by extremely saline water, or brine, which is produced with oil and gas. The primary source of concern is the migration of brine from buried reserve pits that were used to store produced water during recovery operations; however, there also are considerable risks of brine release from pipeline failures, poor infrastructure construction, and flow-back water from hydraulic fracturing associated with modern oilfield operations.During 2008, a multidisciplinary (biology, geology, water) team of U.S. Geological Survey researchers was assembled to investigate potential energy production effects in the Williston Basin. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey participated in field tours and met with representatives from county, State, tribal, and Federal agencies to identify information needs and focus research objectives. Common questions from agency personnel, especially those from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, were “are the brine plumes (plumes of brine-contaminated groundwater) from abandoned oil wells affecting wetlands on Waterfowl Production Areas and National Wildlife Refuges?” and “are newer wells related to Bakken and Three Forks development different than the older, abandoned wells (in terms of potential for affecting aquatic resources)?” Of special concern were the wetland habitats of the ecologically important Prairie Pothole Region, which overlays a part of the Williston Basin and is recognized for the production of a majority of North America’s migratory waterfowl.On the basis of the concerns raised by on-the-ground land managers, as well as findings from previous research, a comprehensive study was developed with the following goals: summarize existing information pertaining to oil and gas production and aquatic resources in the Williston Basin; assess brine plume migration from new and previously studied sites in the Prairie Pothole Region; perform a regional, spatial evaluation of oil and gas production activities and aquatic resources; assess the potential for brine contamination to wetlands and streams; and hold a decision analysis workshop with key stakeholders to discuss issues pertaining to oil and gas production and environmental effects and to identify information gaps and research needs.This report represents an initial, multidisciplinary evaluation of measured and potential environmental effects associated with oil and gas production in the Williston Basin and Prairie Pothole Region. Throughout this report there are reviews of current knowledge, and discussions relating to data gaps and research needs. On the basis of the information presented, future research needs include: regional geophysical and water-quality assessments to establish baselines for current conditions and estimate the extent of previous brine contamination, investigations into the direct effects of brine to biotic communities, and evaluations to identify the most effective techniques to mitigate brine contamination.

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Cover photo of scientific investigations report 2014-5017
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Robert Gleason
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