Roses and Money: Beneficiaries of the Boom
It’s dawn, and I’m walking north on a dirt driveway toward the nearest road where I might find cell phone reception. Terry and I are in the Little Knife River Valley, about 30 minutes south of Stanley. Pheasants – flashes of brown and red – dart through grass wet with dew. Mist shimmers in the rising sun.
We spent last night in a hunting cabin on Joyce and Fred Evans’ cattle ranch, the TTT, which stretches east and west about as far as I can see. (The Evanses and Terry are not related.) TTT stands for Things Take Time, a mantra for Joyce and Fred. They farm durum wheat, run Black Angus cattle, and host a B&B and guide-service for hunters. Rifles and trophy-heads of mountain lion, elk, deer, and buffalo line the cabin walls.
They’re educating us about the benefits of the Bakken boom.
On this morning, a well on the ranch is being hydraulically fractured, and a roar like none I’ve heard reaches me as I walk. Compressors are pumping millions of gallons of water, toxic chemicals, and sand into the well at about 8,000 pounds of pressure per square inch, fracturing ancient rock and freeing petroleum two miles underground. Oil wells have been fracked in North Dakota and elsewhere for a long time but only in recent years with the precision, reach, and explosive force I’m hearing now. Lynn Helms, the state’s chief oil and gas regulator, calls the technology “game-changing,” because it’s opening deep deposits of shale oil to exploitation – not just in North Dakota but around the world.
To me, the roar of fracking feels like an attack.
To Fred Evans, fracking feels like a miracle.
“This country wasn’t made for wheat and cattle. It was made for drilling oil,” he insists. “It’s hard to prosper as a rancher or farmer on this land, but underneath lies one of the largest oil reserves in the world. Because of new technology it can finally be reached. I think it’s the best thing that ever happened to our state.”
Fred worked as an oil field roughneck to earn money to buy land in the 1950s and then went heavily into debt to finance ranching operations. High interest rates during the presidency of Jimmy Carter almost ruined him, and he took a job leasing mineral rights for an oil company to pay debts. Before long he was leasing for several oil companies, including The Triple T, Inc., which he and Joyce own. He says he always had a strong feeling that something big lay just around the bend.
Now people who know Fred and Joyce speculate about how much money they’re making. Fred will only say they’re “doing well,” and he’s grateful for the opportunity to build lasting wealth.
The four Evans children, their spouses, and 13 grandchildren all have (or will soon have) an oil well named for them. Later in the morning, Terry and I drive over to watch fracking on the Ramona TTT well, named for a daughter. The roar had stopped, and a supervisor explains that a machine broke but will soon be fixed. The scene is industrial, a factory in the fields. Equipment crowds a five-acre pad. Generators, compressors, and huge tanks of water, chemicals, and sand are connected to the wellhead by pipes and hoses snaking along the ground. For safety reasons, the supervisor won’t allow us near the wellhead on foot, but he drives us closer in his truck. Terry says she needs to get out to take photographs, and the supervisor phones his boss, who asks us to come talk to him in person at an office 15 minutes away. When we get there, he’s nowhere to be found. A receptionist says he won’t return today. She can’t – or won’t – try to reach him by telephone.
We return to the well but are no longer welcome. It’s not the first time we’ve been turned away from a fracking site, and only later – south of Lake Sakakawea – will we get to observe the process for a longer time. Fracking is dangerous and highly competitive. Many companies try to keep their methods and the ingredients of their fracking brew secret.
Fred and Joyce believe their land is safe from harm by spills of potentially dangerous fluids because – they say – companies have been responsible about cleaning up after accidents so far. The Evanses are also confident that oil operations won’t pollute the Little Knife River or other sources of water. “The petroleum lies miles below the water table,” Fred tells us. “Wastes generated by drilling and fracking can’t migrate that far.” (Rancher Steve Davis and others dispute this, as we’ve reported in other entries of this blog. They say no one can know what the long term effects of fracking will be.)
On our first trip to the TTT in August 2011, a picture window looking east from the Evans’ living room framed wheat fields, native prairie, and coulees climbing surrounding hills. When I look out the window on this visit, a gas flare and several drilling rigs catch my eye. A line of wells is under construction about a mile east of the ranch house.
The changing view doesn’t bother Fred and Joyce. They remind us that gas will eventually be piped and not wasted in flares as often happens now. 170-foot high drilling rigs will be replaced with pumpjacks, which are less obtrusive.
The Evanses enjoy telling stories about the pioneer past and about courting and raising children on land they clearly love. But they do not romanticize the way things used to be. In their view, much better times lie ahead.
Fred often says, “Oil smells like a combination of roses and money to me.”
* * *
We meet 94 year-old Edyth Pladson over lunch at a café in Stanley, and she smiles when talking about the oil boom.
“It’s nice to have a little extra money. Oil has really helped people here.”
Edyth’s parents were North Dakota pioneers in the early 1900s, and she taught for much of her life in one-room schools. She continued to work after marrying a wheat farmer in the early 1940s and after two children, Ione and Jim, were born. They lived in a one-bedroom farmhouse just outside Wildrose, which then had a population of about 112 (it’s slightly larger now). The house lacked indoor plumbing until 1969, two years after Ione graduated from high school. The only heat came from a small, coal-burning stove.
A widow now, Edyth moved into a two-bedroom apartment in town a few years ago, but in good weather she often returns with Ione to the farm. On a warm August afternoon, Terry and I go with them. After turning off State Highway 50 onto their land, we wind through fruit trees planted more than half a century ago and park outside a bright yellow farmhouse with pots of hollyhocks, geraniums, and tomatoes on both sides of the front door.
A pumpjack and water tanks are visible through the fruit trees. The well is new and hasn’t started producing yet, but Edyth says, “I’m glad I don’t live here anymore. I couldn’t have stood the noise from trucks and from drilling and fracking that well.”
Other land she owns closer to Stanley is now producing income from oil, half of which goes to her daughter Ione. Later, at the apartment in Wildrose, we learn what Ione has bought so far: a flat screen TV, food processor, steam cleaner, and a year’s worth of insurance. She and her husband also got the plumbing in their house fixed. Edyth smiles broadly when Ione mentions that.
* * *
Nelson Bird Bear, who lives near Mandaree on the Ft. Berthold Reservation, survived combat as a squad leader with the 1st Air Cavalry Division in Vietnam. After that he worked for decades in an open pit coal mine near Beulah, southeast of the reservation. He has recently leased 360 acres of surface and mineral rights to an oil company, which will soon build pads on two corners of his land. He doesn’t know yet how many wells will be drilled on each pad.
“I got a pretty good deal from the company,” he tells us, “though it could have been better.”
Terry and I have driven to the reservation from Williston for the day. Nelson serves coffee to us at his kitchen table and describes how the Tribal Council is controlling the oil industry on the reservation in ways that prevent him and others from benefiting as he thinks they should from the boom. It’s a complicated story, well covered by by ProPublica, High Country News, and Earth Island Journal.
Nelson’s property overlooks rolling prairie for many miles – a spectacular view. When we ask if he worries about noise and pollution, he answers, “They can put it in my yard. I don’t care. I retired from the coal mine a year ago, and the noise there was worse. I’m willing to put up with environmental problems because of what oil can give people like me, my children, and grandchildren. There’s a lot of poverty on this reservation.”
* * *
As we explore the back roads and towns of the Bakken boom, we also meet beneficiaries of the oil boom who radiate sadness even as they express gratitude to be working again. These are people whose lives fractured when they lost homes and jobs during the recession. Perhaps their wives gave up on them; their children may have also lost faith. Late one afternoon, Terry and I walk through an RV camp in White Earth and talk to men and women who don’t want their names to be known. Before long, the owner of the camp throws us out, saying, “These people have lost a lot in the recession and are heartbroken. You have no right to make stories of their pain.”
Places like that – and there are many of them – feel like the Great Depression, at least what we know from books and parents’ stories. Even on drilling rigs, where a sense of camaraderie and achievement is almost palpable, we sometimes sense regret and sadness for what has been left behind and especially among older workers with good, but not great, jobs. Occasionally we hear expressions of sorrow for what their industry is doing to this storied land.
The Fractured Prairie
Here is the confluence of the Missouri River and the Yellowstone River looking as if Lewis and Clark might suddenly appear, as they did on April 25, 1805, on their voyage of discovery. Lewis wrote:
“I ascended the hills from whence I had a most pleasing view of the country, perticularly of the wide and fertile vallies formed by the missouri and the yellowstone rivers, which occasionally unmasked by the wood on their borders disclose their meanderings for many miles in their passage through these delightfull tracts of country….
South of me the whol face of the country was covered with herds of Buffaloe, Elk & Antelopes…”
More than two hundred years later, Elizabeth and I are on our own journey in North Dakota to explore the oil boom. If only my discoveries of the landscape were “delightfull” like those of Lewis! Here are my pictures of the altered landscape, the fractured fracked prairie, along with the still beautiful confluence of the two rivers.
The Cowboy Who Used Lamaze
Terry and I leave our Williston hotel early one morning and drive east on Highway 1804 to visit an acquaintance who’s supervising a drilling rig not far from New Town. The trip should take about an hour, but we leave double that amount of time. Installing a rig, drilling, and fracking require more than 1,000 truck trips, and travel in northwestern North Dakota these days is often harrowing and slow.
Highway 1804, a link in the National Park Service’s Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, runs east from Williston just north of where the Missouri River widens into Lake Sakakawea, the reservoir created by Garrison Dam in the early 1950s. The explorers camped in several places near where we’re traveling, and their journals mention places we can occasionally see. We’ve come this way several times over the past year, and now we notice more wells, some of them on pads larger than we’ve seen before. State oil and gas regulators are encouraging multi-well pads (a 14-well pad has just been permitted) on the theory they will help minimize the industry’s footprint on the land.
About halfway to New Town, just off the highway, we see a pad on a hill whose side has been gouged and top partly flattened. This method of preparing a well site seems more common now than a year ago. Rancher Scott Davis has pointed out that pre-Bakken oil drilling was in some ways less destructive because fracking wasn’t necessary. Less equipment was required, so pads could be smaller. In the Bakken boom, each oil pad is at times a small factory, especially with multiple wells.
Trucks slow down in front of us to turn onto dirt roads, and occasionally we stop so Terry can photograph 18-wheelers as they disappear in clouds of dust. This highway, like others, has been damaged by heavy loads of oil, fracking chemicals, sand, and water, and we get rerouted several times because of construction. I’m noticing eskers (ridges of gravel deposited by streams flowing beneath glaciers), lignite coal beds, clinker, and other geological formations described by Lewis and Clark in their journals and in a book we keep close: Geology of the Lewis and Clark Trail in North Dakota by John W. Hoganson and Edward C. Murphy.
Friends at home in California sometimes refer to North Dakota as “flat and boring,” but they’re wrong. We’re seeing rolling hills, broad terraces formed by ancient rivers, and – in the distance – rugged badlands, including buttes that recall cowboy movies of long ago. The landscape is sometimes so grand that Terry and I don’t speak. In those places, the prairie projects a kind of power that seems almost palpable as we drive. But 7,500 wells are operating in the Williston Basin now. How much prairie will be left when an additional 38,000 wells have been drilled, as planned? How much more land will be torn up for pads, pipelines, roads, refineries, and waste disposal sites?
When we reach the point on the map where the highway crosses the Nesson Anticline, we try, but fail, to differentiate it from other hills. The anticline is a giant fold in the earth’s crust which, over a period of 500 million years, has trapped millions of barrels of oil into reserves that were first discovered in the early 1950s. The Bakken formation extends far beyond the anticline, but many wells, old and new, still lie along the Nesson fold. We’re exploring an area whose riches — petroleum and prairie — were born of forces so old they seem beyond time, and I wonder why each isn’t used with respect for the eons it embodies. The oil industry here often functions in fast-forward, transforming lives and consuming precious resources pell-mell, with little consideration for long-term consequences.
As rancher Steve Davis says, “The boom is a giant experiment, and we landowners are the guinea pigs.”
Finally we turn north onto a dirt road near Lake Sakakawea’s Little Knife Bay and pass several wells in various stages of completion. Heavy trucks trailing dust speed by going the other way. After about 15 minutes, we find Jaye R. Henderson at the drilling rig he supervises, the third we’ve visited since meeting him a year ago.
He’s in his skid shack, a trailer home on I-beam skid rails, which serves as his office and bunkhouse in North Dakota. He works fourteen 24-hour days in oil and then returns home to Miles City, Montana, for two weeks, where he’s a cowboy. Though he skillfully oversees a complicated industrial process, he considers himself primarily “a horseman.” His goal is to replace land, cattle, and horses he had to sell during what he calls “hard times” a decade ago.
Since 2006, when he came to work in the Bakken, Jaye R. has saved enough money to buy 30 acres and lease a few thousand more near his Miles City home. He has also bought 18 horses and 100 cows. He’s married and has two children, both avid rodeo competitors. He tells us they helped him with physical therapy after he fractured a hip and femur several months earlier when picking up bucking horses for a rodeo. “My friend’s saddle horse bucked, and I rode up alongside him, and then my horse bucked me right off. I broke the leg below the ball joint, and the break spiraled down the leg. I could see it fall apart below my pocket. We had to drive 100 miles to a hospital. The cattle guards about killed me, and I used Lamaze to handle the pain.”
Jaye R. has also served as a Montana state brand inspector and deputy sheriff and hunted coyotes from an airplane. He is unfailingly polite when we meet, and as we learn more about what he does, Terry and I gain a strong appreciation for the difficulty and danger of oil well drilling.
“My company is a leader in North Dakota for safety,” he explains. “But we’re not invincible, and we could go from here to zero in the blink of an eye.” On one of our visits, he had been up most of the night because – as he put it – “a river of sand and gravel was falling in on the well.” He was drinking coffee, chewing Copenhagen, and biting his fingernails. Eventually his crew managed to get that well completed, and now it’s pumping about 150 barrels a day. On the current site, which is also in the Little Knife River Valley, the crew had successfully drilled two new wells but was having trouble with the third. “The drilling water seeped in around the rig, and we had to seal the hole with cement and start over,” he tells us. “Drilling involves expenses of four to five million dollars. It sometimes seems like the weight of the world is on you.” I notice his fingernails are again bitten to the quick.
He’s proud that his rig helps support around 400 families, including immediate rig and logistical support personnel. “And if you take it further to all the families doing commerce with those people in towns and communities, the number is even larger,” he explains.
And he bristles when questioned about potential dangers to land and water from the oil boom.
“How’d you get here? If liberals want to criticize us, let them give up their cars. I’m all for investing in alternate sources of energy, but it’s not here yet. We’re still dependent on fossil fuels.”
Though Jaye R. doesn’t oversee fracking of his wells, he knows about it and insists that opponents are misinformed. “We’ve been fracturing for years. It’s the horizontal drilling that’s new. Now, we frack all the way along. We have holes all the way, and we frack every couple of hundred feet. A ball opens a sleeve and you have a frack zone. It’s no different than blowing up a balloon. We pump in the substances that do the work, and the PSI could be 5,000 or more. It balloons the rock open. We’re popping the rock. And we’re fracking so far down it can’t endanger drinking water.” (Rancher Steve Davis considers fracking to be part of the oil boom “experiment,” because “no one can know what the long term effects will be.”)
Jaye R. is glad that some farmers and ranchers are doing well after what he calls “a hundred years of teetering in and out of black.” But he worries that old values of hard work and sacrifice could get lost in the boom. He wonders, “Will the next generation end up spoiled rotten?”