BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Down past the long rows of stalls hawking flame-resistant clothing and touting fracking and drilling technologies at a major oil exhibition in Bismarck, North Dakota earlier this week, a group of middle school students were promoting something entirely different.
Students from the Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — or STEM — program at West Fargo's Cheney Middle School were at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference displaying projects that focused on problems caused by or related to oil development, and calling for action.
The projects looked at issues such as natural gas flaring and some of the adverse impacts of the boom on towns — major topics of debate in the state. For each project, the students created online petitions calling on state leaders to take more action.
"I truly feel we need to embrace problems that we feel the impacts of," said Candida Braun, eighth-grade science teacher at Cheney Middle School. Braun told the students to come up with a problem related to oil, and find a realistic solution.
Eighth-grader Kristen Lorenz was part of a group looking at natural gas flaring — the practice of burning off natural gas, a byproduct of oil production.
Lorenz's group displayed a nighttime satellite image showing North Dakota's oil fields shining as bright as a metropolitan area.
"It's weird to see how much flaring is going on — and we could change it," said Lorenz.
In March, North Dakota flared off 33 percent of its natural gas, which critics say is a waste, compared with only 1 percent nationwide. More should be done to capture natural gas and use it to power oil industry equipment, Lorenz's group said.
Another group looked at social problems created in oil patch towns that have struggled to keep up with rapid growth. They identified things such as the lack of affordable housing, a steep rise in traffic fatalities and an increase in crime.
The students recommended that oil companies contribute more to solve problems created by their drilling — a stance not shared by some North Dakota politicians wary of new taxes or regulations on the oil industry.
"The oil companies have the money to give back," said student Arrianna Sjoblume.
Students handed out business cards with links to their online petitions. One group's card included the office telephone numbers of North Dakota's U.S. senators. Another featured a QR code that can be scanned with a smartphone.
Their projects opened their eyes to just how big oil really is in their state.
"It's a much bigger deal than any of us had thought," said Sofie Hansen, who worked on the social problems project.