The High Broken Ash — Part III

Kevin Davis' porch near White Earth, ND, June 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

Kevin Davis’ porch near White Earth, ND, June 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.


June 2011

Cloud shadows move slowly across the green prairie behind Terry as she photographs Kevin Davis on the deck of his unfinished home on Ash Coulee Ranch. In his spare time after work, Kevin is building a 1,800 square foot house on a bluff overlooking the White Earth Valley. Occasionally his father or another relative helps, but Kevin, a perfectionist, often works alone. I sense his shy discomfort as Terry takes his picture. He’s a quiet, kind man and has agreed to be photographed as part of our exploration of the impact of the Williston Basin oil boom on his family. Scott and Joanne Davis have five children; Kevin, now 24, is next to the youngest.

“Idle conversation isn’t part of Kevin’s world,” his mother tells us later. “He speaks when he has something important to say.”

Kevin in his new house, August 2011

Kevin in his new house, August 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

It seems right to be silent in this place, which will draw Terry and me back repeatedly over the next 18 months. From the deck I can see many miles in three directions. As usual in such an open space, I feel outside of time, close to eternity, whatever that might be.

Like his father, Kevin reveres the prairie of the Ash Coulee Ranch. To me, his dedication to building the new house resembles religious devotion. When I ask if he worries about oil drilling near his land, he says he hopes for the best and then reminds us he can afford the house because he makes good wages as a senior lease operator for an oil company. It’s his job to keep 39 wells in Mountrail County pumping, fixing them when he can and seeking help when the problem lies beyond his expertise. For a time in 2011, about 30 percent of the oil pumped in Mountrail, the most productive county in the state, was coming from wells Kevin Davis oversees.

* * *

March 2013 – Reflections
Terry and I feel fortunate that Scott Davis didn’t hang up when I called for help in the early stages of exploring the Bakken boom. His family’s complex relationship to oil defies simplistic characterization and embodies contradictions we needed to understand. Even now, the Davis’s experience with oil is illustrative; it’s changing all the time.

The well Scott tried to keep off his prairie in early 2011 is dormant – cave-ins prevented the completion of hydraulic fracking. The company recently tried again and succeeded in fracking a second well on the same pad.

That well is about a mile south of Kevin’s house and out of sight. From his front yard, Kevin can now see two wells on a neighbor’s land and 12 others across the White Earth Valley to the north. Three of those wells are drilled horizontally into the Bakken formation under the Ash Coulee Ranch.

Three Davis children (two of them married with children) now live on the ranch in homes paid for by income from oil companies. Scott has separated from his wife – partly because of different reactions to the oil boom – and lives on the ranch in a small, modular house next to his brother and father. The brothers have joined an increasingly outspoken group of landowners working with the Dakota Resource Council and other organizations to protect prairie, farmland, and waterways endangered by the oil industry. They recently helped block construction of a large toxic waste dump on the edge of the White Earth Valley, across from the Ash Coulee ranch.

When I first called Scott Davis from San Francisco in 2011, he explained his family’s relationship with the oil boom like this: “We run Black Angus cattle on 1,100 acres of rolling hills in one of the most beautiful valleys in North Dakota. I consider the land a birthright for my children and worry the oil boom will ruin it, but we’d have lost the ranch if I hadn’t worked in oil when times were tough, and my family is benefiting from oil now.”

Kevin's House, June 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

Kevin’s House, June 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

An oil company provided Scott and his brother a one-time payment of about $22,500 to drill the wells and build the pad, access road, and pipeline on their native prairie. It’s all they will ever get paid for the company’s use of the surface of their land until the oil stops running, which could be 35 or 40 years from now. Scott points out that the combined acreage could instead support a cow-calf pair. He can sell a young bull every year for as much as $4,000 and a heifer for $2,000. He must pay taxes on that land, though he can no longer use it.

The brothers have also leased out – for about $300 an acre – 240 acres of mineral rights under their land. In early 2012, they received a $36,000 royalty payment from a well on a neighbor’s land that draws oil from the lease, and they are receiving additional royalties of $2,000 to $4,000 every three months.

In North Dakota and at home, Terry and I have heard fierce criticism of people like Scott who complain about the oil boom while benefiting from it. When asked about this, Scott explains that he could not prevent the oil company from drilling on the Ash Coulee Ranch. Nor can his neighbors up and down the White Earth Valley prevent drilling on their land if they or prior owners sold mineral rights in the past. Theoretically, Scott could have refused to accept compensation or royalties from the oil company, but it would still have had the right to drill on his land.

Common law inherited from England allows private ownership of not only the surface of land, but also a column “from heaven to hell” above and below the surface. This means that subsurface mineral rights can be leased or sold. But who would buy those rights if they weren’t accessible? State and federal law ensures that mineral holders can exploit what they own, even if a landowner objects.

In North Dakota, landowners have sold mineral rights for many reasons, including a need for money to survive during periods of drought and low commodity prices. Scott and Steve Davis own the mineral rights to only 240 acres of the 1,100 acres their father bought 40 years ago. The family that sold the land kept the rest.

Under North Dakota law, a mineral owner can enter and disrupt the surface of the land to explore and extract oil even if a surface owner objects, but this right is not unlimited. An oil company must not negligently or unreasonably use the surface.

People like Scott Davis who are suffering from what they believe to be negligent or unreasonable use of their property resent the implication that receiving money from oil discredits their obligation to protect land they love and depend on for a livelihood. Brenda Jorgenson, a neighbor in the White Earth Valley, sometimes refuses to answer the question, “Are you making money off the boom?”

“It’s insulting,” she says, “because it implies that if we take money we lose the right to protect what’s ours and to file complaints when something negligent is done.”

Jorgenson got sick during the 2011 spring run-off when a toxic waste pit on an oil pad overflowed near her home. (57 waste pits in the North Dakota Bakken overflowed then.) A gas flare on a well 800 feet from her home has gone out six times over the past 18 months, forcing Brenda and her husband to flee dangerous gas fumes. Stories like this are legion in northwestern North Dakota. At dinner one night in Williston, we met a trucker who had just witnessed another driver dump drilling waste in a stream south of town. Over lunch in Tioga, a rancher described seeing waste discharged in a newly planted field.

According to state records cited by Nicholas Kusnetz in a June 2012 ProPublica piece, oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater, or other fluids in 2011. Kuznetz writes, “Many more illicit releases went unreported, state regulators acknowledge, when companies dumped truckloads of toxic fluid along the road or drained waste pits illegally.”

Cattle have reportedly been sickened by contaminated water and died from dust pneumonia caused by traffic on dirt roads. Trucks hit animals on highways when fences aren’t replaced properly after construction of oil facilities. The Davises no longer dare herd cattle even on remote roads.

“Our way of life as we know it is over,” Scott told us in late 2011.

But he also insists he’s not opposed to all drilling on or near his ranch. He wants state regulators to ensure that it’s done safely for people, animals and land. In this, he is not alone. A movement to “build a better Bakken” is taking shape, as we’ll report soon.

Record book found in White Earth Museum, August 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

Record book found in White Earth Museum, August 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

The High Broken Ash — Part II

Scott’s Appaloosas, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Scott’s Appaloosas, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.


June 2011 (continued)

Terry and I stand in silence above the oil pad cut from native prairie on the Ash Coulee Ranch in the White Earth Valley of North Dakota.

It’s our first close look at the industrialization of sparsely populated, rural land caused by the oil boom. The industry – drilling, fracking, transporting, pumping, and piping oil – poses a serious threat to irreplaceable prairie like that on the Ash Coulee Ranch.

As we walk back up the road, Scott Davis says, “The well tore a chunk out of me. That land was a birthright for my children.”

Though he owns the surface of his land, Scott doesn’t own all the mineral rights underneath, and he couldn’t stop the oil company from drilling. This seeming anomaly – that he can’t keep an oil well off of his property – will be explored in our next post.

Now he opens a ranch gate, and we walk through rain-wet blue grama grass to visit his Appaloosa horses, including a mother and colt, recently born. They trot towards us, eager to see Scott. We scratch ears and get nuzzled in return.

The 360 degree landscape is more varied than I first thought – not only virgin prairie but farm fields, a few ranch houses, and, here and there, raised, red oil pads with drilling rigs or pumpjacks. We’re looking over broad grasslands watered by springs flowing from these heights to a valley below. The White Earth River runs south through the valley to join the Missouri, 20 miles away, not far above where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-1805.

Teepee Stones above White Earth, April 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Teepee Stones above White Earth, April 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

After a while, we drive a little farther north and pass through another gate into a pasture to see the ranch’s teepee stones. Steve leads the way, pointing to white stones the size of soccer balls in the grass. Most are scattered, but in a few places circles of stones remain. For centuries, Native Americans living along the Missouri moved to higher land in summer to escape heat and mosquitoes, and the Davis brothers believe the stones anchored those summer visitors’ homes. Ranchers in this part of North Dakota often find haunting reminders of earlier lives on their land.

Terry photographs Steve as he walks from circle to circle in the late afternoon sun. From where I stand, the stones seem to glow.

Healthy prairie like we’re seeing is precious partly because of the great variety of species it contains. In severe flood or drought, some species will survive, providing food for animals and securing the soil underneath. On a later visit, prairie biologist Alexey Shipunov drives up from Minot State University to explore the ranch with us. In two hours he points out more than 50 species, including liatris, aster, sage, echinacea, yarrow, wild asparagus, and hemlock. We follow him down a coulee alongside a natural spring, where the temperature is 10 degrees cooler and we’re surrounded by most every shade of green. I hear Alexey gasp as he finds a native thistle and other species he’s never seen in the grasslands of Russia (where he’s from) or anywhere else. Scott is also seeing species for the first time. “Some go dormant when it’s dry,” he tells me, “but this year we’ve had a lot of rain.”

Alexey turns to us and exclaims, “This community looks almost untouched!”

It’s a treasure the Davises are determined to protect. They’ve lost part of their prairie to oil and don’t want to lose any more.

Alexey Collecting on Davis Prairie, August 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

Alexey Collecting on Davis Prairie, August 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

* * *

When we first arrived in North Dakota, on June 1, the Mouse River was flooding, forcing Scott Davis’s sister and her husband out of their Minot home. Scott and his wife Joanne had hooked a 24 foot-long cattle trailer to their truck and rushed to Minot to save family heirlooms. Now, on the final day of this visit, Terry and I return to the ranch to help move furniture into the trailer again. Scott’s sister will place it in storage for now.

Among the pieces is a pew from a Methodist church in Tioga where Scott’s family worshiped when he was young. The church became a pioneer museum after the Davis family was one of only two families attending. We carry the pew into the trailer and then begin to move antiques that had traveled from Sweden with Scott’s great-grandmother more than a century ago – an oak organ, several tables, a rocking chair. Scott’s son’s puppy darts among us. Soon daughter Sarah arrives with her husband and three-week old baby girl. There’s a lot of ribbing and joking as we work.

After a while, someone removes a protective blanket from a wooden dressmaker’s mannequin – also originally from Sweden. It seems almost alive, and I can’t take my eyes off it. Scott steps forward, lifts it gently, and carries it into the cattle trailer, where he ties it securely in place with an old scarf. He stands for a while considering it and the rocking chair.

I watch until he turns around.

“I can still see my grandmother in that chair,” he says to himself and goes back to work.

Later I wonder if the rocking chair, mannequin, and prairie represent something timeless in Scott’s otherwise all-too-temporal life. He suffered and almost died during the 1990s from a rare liver disease, survived because of a last-minute transplant, and then lost part of his colon to ulcerative colitis. Yet, he still bales hay, delivers calves, and brands cattle, among other ranch chores. Terry describes Scott as “masked.” His surface appearance belies devastation inside.

“How will I capture it in a photograph?” she wonders. “He’s like the fracked prairie. The surface contains the visible wounds of the pads, but the greater injury lies underneath.”

Scott Davis, son Damon, daughter Sara, granddaughter Ayla, August 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

Scott Davis, son Damon, daughter Sara, granddaughter Ayla, August 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.


Faces and Stories

It has been a slow and sometimes frustrating process to figure out how to photograph this huge story of upheaval and contradictions on the North Dakota prairie. I have wanted my pictures to be more than reportage. I’ve wanted them to contain the poetry and drama of the layers of history, the expeditions of Lewis and Clark, the current rush on the land for oil, the glee of people who are suddenly rich, the anger of people whose lives have been turned over for oil rigs in their front yards. But my early pictures contained none of the charge of the layers of history or the complexity of now. The landscape work (which I will discuss in a later blog) was beginning to speak, but I regretfully gave up on the idea of portraits after not getting any that satisfied me during our first year of visits to North Dakota.
Terry Evans

EF: What changed that opened up a new way to make portraits?
TE: For our May 2012 trip, I rented an 85mm lens, which is marketed as being a good portrait lens, but I rented it to give me a sort of medium telephoto for my aerial work. The first night in Williston we went to dinner at Applebee’s. It was one of those long days at the beginning of summer, and sunlight was coming through the window, shining on three oil workers at the bar, and I could not stop thinking about how I wished I could photograph them, even though I had abandoned the idea of doing portraits.

I woke up in the middle of the night with the thought that I could do their portraits. I had this 85mm lens and I could invite each one to step outside at Applebee’s. I could photograph them against the sky and have each head fill the whole frame. It was my first thought the next morning. My next thought was that I could photograph a lot of people, because almost everybody in Williston seemed to be connected to the oil boom. I rushed upstairs to tell you about it. Two housekeepers, a young Russian woman and an older woman, were cleaning the room next door, and yes, they did have a connection to the oil boom. The young woman had a three-month student/work visa and had been sent to the Bakken because there were jobs available. The other woman’s husband was working on an oil rig. And so I asked to take their pictures. We went outside to the parking lot right then and I got two portraits that I liked and it surprised me to pieces.

In the next few days I photographed almost everyone we met. We went to a café in Stanley where people were amazingly open. I don’t remember anyone saying no. It was astounding. And since then, I’ve bought the 85mm lens and made more portraits on our subsequent trips.

EF: And what do these portraits give us that those you had taken the first year didn’t?

TE: I knew that I could crop them into squares to frame each face and that each person had a deep story that would give us a way to talk about things that I couldn’t talk about in the landscape pictures. The new portraits were not about only that moment. There was something about the face filling the frame and revealing descriptive details that suggested something more. One is often taught in beginning creative writing classes: the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes. For example, there is the portrait and story of Edyth Pladson, who grew up very poor and now – at age 94 – has two oil wells on land left to her by her father many years ago. Suddenly she has some unexpected income as do her two middle-aged children. Their lives have been changed by the oil boom. This becomes not just her story, but a bigger story. It is not that the portraits themselves are unusual; it is that everyone I photograph has a story that connects to the oil boom and the portraits are a way to begin to tell the stories.

The High Broken Ash — Part I

Bank from an earlier boom, White Earth. Photo by Terry Evans.

Bank from an earlier boom, White Earth. Photo by Terry Evans.


June 2011

Before leaving for our first trip to Williston, epicenter of the North Dakota oil boom, I find a book-length poem by Thomas McGrath, “Letter to an Imaginary Friend,” to use as a charm against friends and family who disparage the state as boring, fly-over country. “There’s nothing up there,” some have said. “Why not drill for oil?”

North Dakota has produced some good writers, but for me, the poetry of McGrath answers that question best.


For a different sort of guide, I search North Dakota websites and discover an advertisement for an auction of registered Black Angus bulls on Scott Davis’s Ash Coulee Ranch in White Earth, about an hour east of Williston. The name catches my eye. I had just read a McGrath poem mentioning a “high broken ash.”

In Norse mythology, a broken ash, the tree of life, would signal a fractured world.

I call Scott Davis on the telephone. Even after years of reporting, the first call on a story makes me nervous.

“You don’t know me,” I say, “but please don’t hang up.”

A few weeks later, photographer Terry Evans (flying from Chicago) and I (from San Francisco) meet at Minot International Airport and begin our exploration of a modern day oil boom. We rent an all-wheel drive SUV and head west through the 300,000 square-mile Williston Basin, where buffalo, beaver, and elk were once so tame and plentiful that Lewis and Clark struggled to find words to describe them. Beneath us lie multiple layers of entrapped petroleum, the product of 75 million years of geologic history. We see sandstone and shale on bluffs and stream banks, evidence of ancient inland seas. This is land where buffalo trails carved over centuries are still visible from the air.

Alongside us: grasslands green as Killarney, fields planted in spring wheat, drilling rigs, pumpjacks, and water tanks the size of small buildings on raised platforms of dirt and clinker – the red gravel also called scoria. 75,000-pound oil trucks dominate the highway, especially near Stanley, a railroad town. Twenty miles beyond, we turn north into the White Earth Valley.

Scott Davis had described what to expect, and Terry and I – both originally from Kansas – are familiar with such places. But now we’re struck dumb by the beauty of coulees and native prairie climbing from the White Earth River to bluffs high above. We roll down windows, get distracted by birdsong and breeze, and drive too far, past the ranch into a town that seems on the cusp of change. Lilac bushes bloom beside abandoned houses and a new RV park for oil workers fills the playground of a long-closed school.

It’s White Earth, once the western terminus of the Great Northern Railroad, where tens of thousands of settlers stepped down from trains and headed into the unknown.

We turn back again until we see someone.

“Where’s the Davis Place?”

“Just south – second house.”

And there it is – a two-bedroom modular home surrounded by machinery and vehicles in need of repair. If it’s true – as some say in these parts – that a man’s worth is judged by the number of his pistons, this is a real man’s home. Weaving through trucks and decrepit cars, we bump over ruts in the driveway and park below the house, which is small and fairly new. Front and side decks are still under construction. Scott Davis’s father and brother live here; Scott resides in Tioga with his wife and youngest son but spends most days on the ranch. Beside us, muddy paddocks surround a couple of large metal barns. We’re on a slight rise above the White Earth River. Just beyond us, prairie hills dotted with berry bushes and freshly leaved trees reach to the western rim of the valley.

Scott’s brother Steve – dressed in an old grey sweatshirt and jeans – comes out to greet us. He says his brother is delivering bulls and will arrive home soon. We make our way through carpentry tools to the deck, and Steve begins to talk. Terry gets up from time to time to take photographs – she calls them “notes” – with her digital camera.

Steve Davis

Steve Davis

This is far north country where it’s almost supper time but feels like early afternoon. Crickets and frogs sing in the coulee; ash leaves rustle in the breeze.

Steve’s soft, urgent voice: “Oil is changing how we live. Before the boom, we’d leave for two weeks without locking the door. We can’t drive now on some roads – they’re ruined by truck traffic. Grocery stores can’t stock enough food; people who’ve moved here for jobs have no place to live. In White Earth, an oil company put in its own power for workers’ RV homes.

“The well on our land has been nothing but trouble. Before dirt was moved, the site was supposed to be fenced to protect our animals. It wasn’t. Cows got out, and I had to go up and build the fence myself.

“The oil companies treat us like a bothersome fly. We’re a nuisance for them.”

Steve returned home in 2008 from Washington State, where he taught physical education and coached high school football. He came back to help his handicapped father and work with Scott on the ranch. He had missed North Dakota but says, “The place I loved isn’t here anymore.”

When Scott arrives, he joins us on the deck. He’s taller than Steve and thinner. It seems to me the two of them communicate without words. Scott explains that he worked for 20 years in oil fields in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“Oil has done a lot for us. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to hold onto the land in hard times. My children would have taken off to work in other states, but now they’ve got good jobs here.”

In the coming 18 months of exploring northwestern North Dakota, we will learn that the Davis family’s experience with oil is fairly common, embodying the promise and peril of the industrial transformation of this place.

As shadows lengthen, Scott loads us into his pickup truck, bumps up an old highway, and turns north on a dirt road running alongside the upper pastures of the ranch. His father, who taught school for many years in Tioga, borrowed money to buy the land when Scott and Steve were young and then almost lost it in the late ‘70s when interest rates rose and commodity prices fell. Scott took a job insulating pipes for an oil company, made the loan payments, and saved the land. Now he owns 1,100 acres and leases about 700 more. He and Steve raise registered Black Angus cattle. Their herd had produced 90 calves earlier in the year, but coyotes killed four, and a pair of twin calves also died.

“You don’t get over losing a calf,” Scott tells us. “In 2010, we saved three sets of twins who went on to raise their own calves.

“What I’m best at is breeding cattle. In my opinion, we have some of the best in the world. We’re selling grass, you know, in the cows. I think people would value prairie more if they understood they’re eating grass when they eat the cows. Grass, like oil, is stored energy.”

Scott’s pasture in August. Photo by Terry Evans.

Scott’s pasture in August. Photo by Terry Evans.

We turn onto a new oil road gouged crudely from prairie, drive 200 feet, and get out to walk, trying not to trip on deep ruts as we go. (Later in the week, Steve’s truck will get stuck on this road, and an oil worker will refuse to push him out, a sharp violation of the prairie tradition of lending a hand.) We’re walking downhill towards the White Earth River. Scott points with pride to his virgin prairie. 800 of the ranch’s 1,100 acres have never been plowed. He keeps cattle completely off some land and moves them frequently on the rest to prevent overgrazing. Terry, who has spent a lifetime photographing prairie, says she’s seldom seen such healthy grasslands on an active cattle ranch.

We come around a bend and suddenly see a 16-acre oil pad surrounded by huge tanks holding hundreds of thousands of tons of chemicals, sand, and water. In coming days they’ll be pumped at high pressure through a wellhead into the Bakken formation two miles under the surface of the earth with enough force to free oil from shale. Big signs with red letters warn, “Danger! No Trespassing! Combustible Chemicals!”

“It broke my heart when they tore up our virgin prairie,” Scott says. “But we couldn’t stop them. You can’t prevent an oil company from getting access to what they own.”


Oil pad on Davis prairie one week after fracking. Photo by Terry Evans.

Oil pad on Davis prairie one week after fracking. Photo by Terry Evans.

Dakota is Everywhere

Water Tank with Flare in Distance

Water Tank with Flare in Distance


November 2012

Fog blankets Williston this morning as wet snow falls. Through a dirty hotel window I can just make out heavy trucks traveling east and west, even in this weather, to service oil wells along Highway 2. The four lane strip ties together much of the Williston Basin, a 300,000 square mile depression that includes part of North and South Dakota, Montana, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan. Two miles underneath lies the shale formation called the Bakken, where hydraulic fracturing has unlocked vast amounts of petroleum. Photographer Terry Evans and I arrived yesterday with our usual tools: cameras, history books, poetry, warm coats, and boots. This is our seventh trip to Williston in 18 months of exploring the effects of the oil boom on prairie and people. This morning I’m preparing to interview oil engineer Russell Rankin by reading “Song of the Exposition” by Walt Whitman, bard of American industrial ingenuity in an earlier age.


Whitman’s enthusiasm seems appropriate. Rankin helped Brigham Exploration, a company based in Austin, Texas, develop some of the techniques that make oil production in the Bakken economically feasible. Brigham was one of the first operators to drill two-mile long, lateral wells and hydraulically fracture (“frack”) them in multiple – sometimes up to 20 – stages, dramatically boosting production. In fracking, water, sand, and chemicals are forced into rock under high pressure to loosen petroleum. Recently the International Energy Agency reported that the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer before 2020 largely because of the oil and gas now available – through fracking – from shale. Statoil, which is 67 percent owned by the Norwegian government, is so bullish on the Bakken that it bought Brigham late last year for $4.7 billion, gaining its expertise and 375,000 net acres in North Dakota. Brigham’s CEO and others moved on, but Russell Rankin stayed as Statoil’s regional manager in the Bakken.

He’s late because of snow and traffic, and when he arrives we forego a formal interview and talk over lunch in the fraying dining room of the hotel. He’s 39, courteous, and so enthusiastic about Bakken drilling techniques that at first he forgets to eat. He says Brigham/Statoil has quadrupled production – far more than he’d anticipated – since June 2011, when Terry and I began our explorations.

“We’ve learned a lot. We were at the development stage earlier, but now we’ve drilled enough that we can map more precisely where the oil is. When you first got here in June, 2011, Brigham was operating 70 wells; now Statoil has 270. We had 8 drilling rigs operating then and 19 by the beginning of 2012. We’ve got fewer rigs up now because we don’t need as many as before. We’re drilling more than one well now on each pad – we’ve got 4 on one site.”

Russell Rankin

Russell Rankin

Monthly oil production in North Dakota’s Williston Basin grew from 11 to almost 22 million barrels between May 2011 and November 2012. In the same period, the number of wells rose from 5,300 to 8,000. At least 45,000 wells are projected for North Dakota before this boom is done.

This is the juggernaut Terry and I have been exploring, and in the coming months this blog will feature what we’ve found.

After lunch, Rankin offers to take us to a nearby Statoil oil drilling site. We make our way through busy Williston streets to Highway 1804 (named for the first year of the Lewis and Clark expedition) and head towards the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers. Soon we turn onto a county road and wind through snow-covered prairie hills shrouded in fog. In a wooded coulee (as ravines here are called), I see golden leaves still falling and horses huddled together to stay warm.

A Sidewinder drilling rig, 176 feet tall and bright red, stands on a rise about a mile past the horses. Statoil leases the rig and subcontracts with specialists for drilling. This one had just been erected. It has robotic feet and will “walk” in order to drill two boreholes here in the next weeks.

From the pad (the raised platform where the rig sits), I can see that we’re in the middle of what will eventually be many wells along a section line road. Barely visible to the west, and ghostly in the fog, are more pump jacks and a wide gash through the prairie – a trench for a pipeline under construction. Just over the hill behind us is a barn, and I figure a farmhouse isn’t far away. Rankin doesn’t know who owns the mineral rights Statoil has leased to drill this well. As I observe the structures within view, I’m struck again by the rapid transformation we’re witnessing of formerly rural lands. North Dakota was, until recently, about 18% prairie (untilled land dominated by native grasses, shrubs, and flowering plants like black-eyed Susan), a source of pride to many people in the state. Terry’s photographs of the Bakken landscape document a continuing loss and fragmentation of that prairie by structures and activities associated with the oil boom.

Before climbing onto the rig, we go into a trailer serving as headquarters for the drilling operation known as “geosteering” and meet workers from that group. Directed by engineers at the home office in Austin, they will guide the drill bit two miles down, gradually execute a 90 degree “bend,” and then go two miles laterally through dolomitic sandstone lying between two layers of shale. Eventually, fluids will be injected under explosive pressures into the shale, fracturing it and freeing the oil. Sensors on the drill bit provide the information needed to guide it by remote control. “It’s like steering a car backwards,” Rankin said.

Later, on the rig, we walk over large vats of churning “mud” – the drilling fluid (diesel fuel, water, and chemicals) that will clean and cool the bit and carry cuttings out of the hole. “Statoil is working towards a mineral-based, environmentally friendly mud,” Rankin says. “We’re also looking at ways to use recycled drill cuttings for construction – on roads for example.”

Blow Out Prevention Stack

Blow Out Prevention Stack

From the top of the rig we see a secondary berm around the pad. Rankin says Statoil took the lead in requiring two berms, not just one, so leaks would be less likely to spread. “Also, our pads are 100 percent compacted,” he explains, “so if an uncontrolled release occurs, it can’t sink down too far.” I think of a rancher we’ve interviewed who was sickened by waste from a different company’s well when it overflowed into a coulee near her home during the spring thaw. Rankin had already explained and vigorously defended hydraulic fracturing over lunch and now tells us that Statoil will use 50 percent recycled water to frack sometime in the future. He’s eager to explain that the company is environmentally conscious. Perhaps he senses critics nipping at his heels. As you’ll read later in this blog, Terry and I have observed the birth of a small but dedicated movement aimed at keeping oil wells off some North Dakota land and ensuring that drilling, fracking, and other operations are carried out safely everywhere else.

In mid-2011 we asked one cattle rancher who has made millions from oil why some companies have seemed so hurried in drilling the Bakken.

“It’s like when we’re haying and hear thunder in the distance,” he answered. “We work faster to get the hay in.” The thunder in this case would include permanent bans on fracking in France and Bulgaria (and a temporary ban in Great Britain) and a growing movement against it in the United States.

Also, the IEA report mentioned above reminds us that no more than one-third of the earth’s remaining fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) should be used by 2050 to avoid global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). As the U.S. acknowledged when it signed onto the Copenhagen Accord in 2010, scientists believe this is the limit beyond which climate change will become catastrophic.

Technical prowess is an important part of the Bakken story, and in an earlier America, a great poet might have “sung” the achievements of the talented people who have produced this industrial boom. Our world is still profoundly dependent on oil. Terry and I are acutely aware of this each time we board an airplane to North Dakota and travel to remote drilling sites in a rented SUV. Still, it would be hard to find a poet of Whitman’s genius to “sing” the Bakken boom. We’re exploring something new in American history – a major industrial leap in an era of global warming. To rejoice seems inappropriate – almost like dancing on a grave.