Headline-grabbing incidents such as oil-pipeline spills get most of the attention, but ecological impacts from energy development in the Great Plains can also result from something as seemingly innocuous as digging in the dirt, a scientist said at a public workshop in Rapid City.

Jacqueline Ott said some of the soil in the Great Plains has a salty or high-sodium layer just below the surface.

“If you start mixing that in with the rest of the soil, it becomes very salty, and only salt-loving plants, if that, can survive it,” she said.

Ott is a Rapid City-based research ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station. Her talk was the first one of the day Friday during the Black Hills Area Botany & Ecology Workshop at the Outdoor Campus West. The event was free and open to the public and was attended by about 100 people, mostly from government agencies, universities and nonprofit organizations.

Ott’s talk highlighted some findings from a synthesis project she is coordinating. The project’s goal is to synthesize existing research findings into a better overall understanding of the effects of energy development on the Great Plains, and how those effects can be minimized.

The topic is important because of the prominent role played by the Great Plains in the nation’s energy industry. Ott said 12 U.S. states produce more energy than they consume, and seven of the 12 are in the Great Plains (South Dakota is not among the seven, but the list includes Wyoming and North Dakota).

“We’re very energy-rich in our grasslands,” Ott said.

Some lessons learned by research into the ecological impact of energy development on the Great Plains are already being applied, said Ott, who gave numerous examples.

To minimize the spread of weeds and invasive species and help restore native grasses after a disturbance by an energy project, Ott said weeds can be eliminated before the project is undertaken, and native seeds can be collected for use in restoration efforts afterward.

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To reduce the amount of acres impacted by energy development, creative siting and co-location can be used, such as the placement of multiple oil rigs on one pad rather than multiple pads, or the overlapping of wind-turbine projects with land where biofuels are grown.

Regarding wildlife, Ott said research is revealing surprising ways in which animals are harmed or even helped by energy production, and those findings can be put to use in the management and regulation of energy infrastructure.

Ott cited research, for example, that indicates mule deer are more willing to live in close proximity to oil wells in North Dakota, where the deer have access to more open space, but tend to stay farther away from oil wells in other states where their migration routes are more restricted.

She said some energy infrastructure has proven helpful to sharp-tailed grouse, because it doesn’t bother them but scares away their predators.

In the wind-energy industry, research has inspired changing blade sizes and even different paint patterns that may result in fewer bat and bird deaths.

Other wind-energy research in states including Texas and California has indicated that very large wind farms may be altering local wind directions and increasing local temperatures.

Those are the kinds of diverse findings that Ott is attempting to synthesize into a more cohesive summary of ecological impacts from energy development in the Great Plains, to highlight opportunities for minimizing those impacts as energy development continues.

Ott said the United States consumed 97 quadrillion British thermal units, or BTUs, in 2017. She said each BTU is equivalent to the energy from one match, so the United States’ energy consumption in 2017 was equivalent to burning 97 quadrillion matches.

“Energy has become woven into our society worldwide,” she said. “We view energy as necessary for life.”

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Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal and author of "Calvin Coolidge in the Black Hills."