Fracking Our National Parks: America's Best Idea Threatened By Oil and Gas Addiction


Teddy Roosevelt must be rolling over in his grave. Elkhorn Ranch, where the great Republican conservationist sat on his porch overlooking the Little Missouri River and conceived his then-progressive theories of conservation, is at risk of being despoiled by fracking

Now sitting in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you’d assume that Roosevelt’s “home ranch” (as he called it) was protected from fossil fuel development. But the view from Elkhorn could soon be dominated by a new gas well staked just 100 feet from the site, a new bridge over the river and a new road to service nearby fracking fields. “Astronomers at Theodore Roosevelt National Park – which once offered some of the nation’s darkest, most pristine night skies – also see a new constellation of flares from nearby fracking wells,” writes the National Parks Conservation Association.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park is not alone. Around the country – from Big Sky Country to the water gaps and rivers of the East – National Parks and recreation areas are being threatened by rampant, fracking-driven oil and gas development.

A new report released by the NPCA, National Parks and Hydraulic Fracturing: Balancing Energy Needs, Nature, and America’s National Heritage, explores this threat to our greatest, most valuable public lands.

Our research revealed that some national parks are already in peril. Unless we take quick action, air, water, and wildlife will experience permanent harm in other national parks as well,” said Jim Nations, NPCA Vice President for the Center for Park Research. 

“Already in peril” is right. 

To the immediate east of Glacier National Park, hydrofracking operations are so intense that drivers will see signs warning them of the unsafe gases in the air. Pronghorn that live part of the year in Grand Teton National Park are now forced to migrate through fields polluted by benzene and other fracking byproducts. Wildlife habitats around the Delaware Water Gap are being fragmented by roads and other drilling infrastructure. 

The NPCA report takes five case studies (from the aforementioned four locations and also the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area) and identifies the detrimental impacts that hydrofracking can have – and in many cases already is having – on our treasured national parks and recreation areas. The impacts are broken down roughly into these five categories:
Habitat Fragmentation and Wildlife Impacts: The fracking boom creates a road construction boom, as it demands land to be cleared for access roads to new well sites. As a result, wildlife resources are destroyed and the habitat that remains is fragmented. The NPCA notes that, “because national park wildlife do not recognize park boundaries – they move in and out of parks as food and shelter require – changes

in landscapes that surround national parks will lead to the loss of park biodiversity, and fragmentation will increase the intrusion of non-native, invasive species.

National Park Scenic Views, Natural Sounds, and Night Skies: Fracking is loud. There are air compressors and drilling rigs and a lot of traffic. The NPCA writes that these “intrusions can alter the behavior of wildlife and infringe on people’s enjoyment of nature’s natural sounds – an effect of particular concern when fracking occurs near national parks.” Fracking is also unsightly. And bright. The lighting of drill pads and flaring at night is so severe in North Dakota, for instance, that the region shows up as clearly as an East Coast city on a NASA satellite image at night. So bright that the locals are calling it “Kuwait on the Prairie.”


Water Quantity: Millions of gallons of water are used for the hydraulic fracturing of a single gas or oil well. With “many thousands of wells [having] already been drilled, and trends [indicating] that oil and gas fracking will continue to expand in coming years,” the NPCA figures that “water drawdowns for fracking have the potential to affect important water supplies for native plants and animals, including both surface and groundwater within national parks.”

Water Quality: No matter how the oil and gas companies try to spin it, wastewater from the fracking process is polluted. It carries chemicals and brines and other nastiness, and the only ways of dealing with the hundreds of thousands, even millions of gallons of wastewater from a well are to inject it into deep wells or dump it on the landscape or cart it at great expense to treatment plants. (Guess which option the companies don’t typically choose.) 

Air Pollution: Let’s go straight to the NPCA on air pollution: “Hydraulic fracturing activities emit more pollutants than traditional oil and gas extraction methods, and some national parks are already experiencing
air quality impacts associated with fracking. These pollutants include a lengthy list of hydrocarbons, methyl mercaptan, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and ozone.” It’s worth highlighting the ozone in particular here, as the pollutant directly impacts visitors to parks, as well as the wildlife and vegetation. For instance, in northeastern Utah’s Uintah Basin, near Dinosaur National Monument, 10,000 oil and gas wells created ozone levels that were worse than those of New York City.

Accompanying the main report are five case studies for national parks and recreation areas all around the country, all of which you can access through this NPCA website. Each case study has a map, like this one of Glacier National Park, that shows the proximity of fracking operations to these treasured public lands. 


Honestly, this report should set off alarms for any American, regardless of where they sit on the ideological spectrum, and regardless of how they feel about fracking or oil and gas in general. These are treasured, special places that belond to all of us, that shouldn’t be sold out or despoiled for private interest. 

In fact, the NPCA emphasizes that it does not, as an institution, reject hydrofracking categorically, but rather simply begs caution in development around our national parks. The recommendations laid out in the report should sound reasonable to just about any American who has ever appreciated our national park system. Recommendations like: 

  • BLM require that the identity of the chemicals be disclosed to the public before drilling begins, that all flowback waters be stored in closed-loop containers and treated before they are allowed to reenter public waters
  • The National Park Service receive the designation of formal “cooperating agency” under the National Environmental Protection Act when there is a reasonable likelihood that national park air, water, wildlife, or other resources will be affected by oil and gas activities on BLM land.
  • The industry provide and pay for a comprehensive water quality monitoring plan for all park waters that might potentially be impacted.
  • EPA implementation of a regulation to cut 95 percent of ozone and toxic emissions from natural gas wells developed through fracking, and take effect in 2015, take effect today and be expanded to cover existing and future wells

Of course, all of America’s land – public and private, from the spare remote wildlands to the rural communities – deserves better protection from the pollution and ills of fracking, to say nothing of the greenhouse gas emissions that it brings about. But our national parks certainly deserve the strongest possible defense. 

Images: All NPCA, except the night satellite image by NPR/NASA

Ben Jervey is a Senior Fellow for DeSmog and directs the project. He is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher, specializing in climate change and energy systems and policy. Ben is also a Research Fellow at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School. He was the original Environment Editor for GOOD Magazine, and wrote a longstanding weekly column titled “The New Ideal: Building the clean energy economy of the 21st Century and avoiding the worst fates of climate change.” He has also contributed regularly to National Geographic News, Grist, and OnEarth Magazine. He has published three books—on eco-friendly living in New York City, an Energy 101 primer, and, most recently, “The Electric Battery: Charging Forward to a Low Carbon Future.” He graduated with a BA in Environmental Studies from Middlebury College, and earned a Master’s in Energy Regulation and Law at Vermont Law School. A bicycle enthusiast, Ben has ridden across the United States and through much of Europe.

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