Where Will the Prairie Chickens Dance?

Oil operations near Stenslie home, May 2012, photo by Terry Evans.

Oil operations near Stenslie home, May 2012, photo by Terry Evans.

I’m eavesdropping this morning on a Dakota Resource Council conference call – with permission. Members of the DRC oil and gas task force are discussing their agenda for the coming weeks. Ten people are on the line, sharing information and deciding who will testify about pending legislation in committee hearings in Bismarck. DRC Director Don Morrison and organizer Sean Arithson preside in a low-key way.

The number of oil wells in northwestern North Dakota has risen from 5,300 to a little over 8,500 since Terry and I began our explorations almost two years ago. Discontent is spreading as are efforts to prevent more damage to land and people.

“It’s painful that farmer and rancher livelihoods are being trampled in the rush to develop oil as fast as possible, when it could be done in a very different way,” Don Morrison said in an interview a few days before the call. “Coal mining in this state was developed responsibly in the 1970s, largely because of Governor Arthur Link. If only we had such leaders now.”

A 1973 speech by Governor Link is almost a credo for those trying to limit damage from the oil industry:


Listening on the telephone, I learn a little about the challenge of political organizing in North Dakota. The task force members are mostly farmers and ranchers who, with a few exceptions, live far apart. Now, in early spring, snow and fog are making it hard to get to anywhere, let alone to Bismarck, the state capital.

Daryl Peterson, who farms wheat, barley, beans, and sunflowers north of Minot, has lost several acres to repeated salt water leaks from a disposal well on his property. He has incurred high costs for soil testing and legal fees and is considering further legal action to force proper reclamation of his land. He works closely with the DRC and also the Northwest Landowners Association, on whose board he serves. The NWLA represents the interests of ranchers and farmers affected by the oil boom.

Greg Tank, who lives near Keene, no longer runs cattle on his ranch because of oil-related danger to his animals, especially from truck traffic. He used to herd his cows from one pasture to another along a nearby road which had little traffic until about three years ago. (Fences prevented herding overland.) Last year, during a period of several months, he counted more than 3,000 large trucks on that road every day – most of them servicing wells or related oil facilities. For that reason and others, he finds it too dangerous to raise cattle now.

In a lull in the conference call, he says softly, “We have so much damage out here.”

DRC organizer Sean Arithson runs through bills pending in the legislature and asks who can travel to Bismarck to testify in committee hearings. One bill, which is opposed by the task force, would make it easier for oil, pipeline, and electric companies to take land by eminent domain. Other legislation, endorsed by the DRC, would have mandated that oil facilities be placed farther than 500 feet from a dwelling, but that part of the bill had just been removed by the House. Several of the people on the telephone offer to go to Bismarck to testify in favor of an amendment that would get language back into the bill requiring a set-back of at least 1,000 feet. To supplement its testimony, the DRC will also present legislators with a petition signed by hundreds of people, which reads, “500 feet is not enough to protect residents from flares, grass fires, explosions, toxic smells and the safety and health hazards from increased traffic.”

Don Morrison, Director, Dakota Resource Council, May 2012, photo by Terry Evans.

Don Morrison, Director, Dakota Resource Council, May 2012, photo by Terry Evans.


Terry and I first learned about the DRC’s organizing efforts a year ago at a meeting in the home of Norma and Jim Stenslie on Lake Sakakawea near New Town. Jim, who is 77, served as pastor of several northwestern North Dakota parishes of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and is now retired. He and Norma live in a year-around cabin just down the hill from nine oil wells then in various stages of construction and eight gravel pits (gravel is used for oil pads and other industry purposes). Before the meeting, Terry and I stood with Jim on his front porch looking at the lake through pines, cottonwoods, and lilacs in bloom. Oil operations are ruining their previously quiet lives, he said.

Don Morrison opened the meeting by asking the 11 people in the living room to introduce themselves. Arthur Langved spoke first. He told the group he was 80 years old and had been part of the crew on the Clarence Iverson well near Tioga, where North Dakota’s first oil was struck in 1951. He expressed several concerns about the Bakken boom, including what he called “corruption” in state government.
Dorothy Ventsch said that she and her sister Shelly came “because we have to make our opinions known or lose everything we value.”

Glenna Meiers, a neighbor of the Stenslies, said, “Because we’re so close to oil operations, the sounds and smells here – even what we see – have changed. We no longer see the northern lights.”

Brenda and Richard Jorgenson spoke, as did Steve and Scott Davis. Don Morrison praised the effective organizing of the Davises and others in White Earth who were struggling to block construction of a waste disposal site near the Davises’ ranch.

“There have been successful actions to fight back,” Morrison said. “We must figure out where change can happen.”

Rev. Jim Stenslie, member Dakota Resource Council, May 2012, photo by Terry Evans.

Rev. Jim Stenslie, member Dakota Resource Council, May 2012, photo by Terry Evans.

Later on that same trip in May last year, we met with a small group of people at the home of Theodora Bird Bear near Mandaree on the Ft. Berthold Reservation. To get there, we drove through miles of native prairie interrupted by large oil pads. Many more will be built in the years ahead. Theodora began documenting oil-related damage on the reservation in 2007, mostly for the New Town News. She carries a digital camera with her at all times. “They dismiss what we say if there’s no documentation,” she explained. Among other incidents, she has documented leaks of petroleum and other fluids from trucks, a prairie fire caused by a gas flare two miles from her home, and a well spewing yellowish fluid into the air near Mandaree for more than 14 hours.

Her neighbor, Avalon Hale, who has oil wells on and near her property, said she’d been looking for the wild prairie chickens that used to mate every spring near her home. Their courting ritual is elaborate, involving strutting and a showy snapping of tails. An oil well now dominates those mating grounds.

“Where will the prairie chickens dance?” Avalon asked. No one answered.

Theodora Bird Bear, Ft. Berthold Reservation, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Theodora Bird Bear, Ft. Berthold Reservation, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.


April 16, 2013
In recent months, those working to stop destruction of lands and livelihoods in the Williston Basin have had some successes.

On March 18, because of rising opposition on the Ft. Berthold Reservation, construction of an oil waste landfill in White Shield was shut down several weeks after the owners had begun moving dirt without getting all the required permits. On the 19th, 200 tribal members gathered in a White Shield community center to vigorously oppose allowing a landfill on property that had been a refuge for wildlife.

“People were unanimous in opposing the site,” Theodora Bird Bear wrote in an e-mail. She is now documenting these events and others on her Facebook page, “This is Mandaree,” and also helping organize a new statewide organization, the North Dakota Energy Industry Waste Coalition, which will gather data and lobby for stronger environmental enforcement throughout the oil patch.

On March 20th, the North Dakota House of Representatives rejected a proposed cut in the oil extraction tax, a bill vigorously promoted by the oil industry, and on the 22nd, a company which had applied to drill next to Theodore Roosevelt National Park pulled its permit application after growing opposition around the state.

But last week, the DRC-backed effort to move oil wells farther than 500 feet from homes did not make it out of the Senate committee.
* * *

We end our blog as we began it two months ago with lines from Thomas McGrath’s epic poem about North Dakota, Letter to an Imaginary Friend.


McGrath writes about the history of his home state as a stage on which humans – in our goodness and greed – enact dramas universal in their implications. He explores the breaking of the prairie, the near demise of buffalo, the wars against Native Americans, the dust bowl, and repeated booms and busts, including the Great Depression, highlighting the often tragic fallibility of humankind. He died in 1990, but the worldwide implications of the Bakken oil boom wouldn’t surprise him if he were still around.

As Lynn Helms said in our interview, the new fracking methods developed to extract Bakken oil are a world “game-changer.” Shale oil in other places is now more likely to be exploited, which could be dangerous, because reputable scientists warn that no more than one-third of the earth’s remaining fossil fuels should be used by 2050 to avoid global warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). That’s the limit beyond which climate change will become catastrophic, many scientists believe.

This February 18 letter to the editor of the Williston Herald from Shelly Ventsch, one of two sisters at the DRC meeting near New Town last year, reads to us as a universal cry from the heart. We close our blog here:

Much of what I cherished is gone or disappearing….

I am trying to navigate farm equipment through a string of crazy drivers of semi’s raising clouds of dust, stunting my crops, lowering my yields. I am picking up oil-soaked ducks…

I am searching for the sight of the wildlife which is no longer there.

I realize everybody is not to blame for this, but the general feeling is we have been forced to sacrifice our way of life to accommodate the nation’s unemployed and to feed the state’s insatiable appetite for money.

I do not expect understanding, nor am I looking for sympathy. I just want the life I had already made for myself.

Looking back, south of Stanley, October 2011, photo by Terry Evans.

Looking back, south of Stanley, October 2011, photo by Terry Evans.

This is the last entry of the Farnsworth/Evans blog. From June 7, 2013, to January 2014, Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History will feature the exhibition, “Fractured: North Dakota’s Oil Boom, by Terry Evans and Elizabeth Farnsworth.” The exhibition then travels to the North Dakota Museum of Art, Grand Forks.

The Center for Art + Environment will open an exhibition of their oil boom work and project archive in June 2014 as part of the Nevada Museum of Art’s triennial Art + Environment conference held that fall.

Lynn Helms on the Oil Boom: “It is a world game-changer.”

Fracking in the Bakken, April 2012, Photo by Terry Evans

Fracking in the Bakken, April 2012, Photo by Terry Evans

Introduction: Lynn Helms worked for Texaco and Amerada Hess (now Hess Corporation) before becoming North Dakota’s chief oil and gas regulator in 1998. He is Director of the Department of Mineral Resources of the North Dakota Industrial Commission. Terry Evans photographed – and I interviewed – him in Bismarck on August 31, 2012. Updates to some questions, which he answered last week via e-mail, follow the main text. I have added italicized information in brackets when necessary for clarity.

Elizabeth Farnsworth: How much oil is in the Bakken and how much is recoverable?

Lynn Helms: Our numbers show 500 billion barrels in place total, 300 billion of that being within the boundaries of the state of North Dakota. We see somewhere between 7 and 15 billion barrels recoverable in North Dakota.

EF: What does it feel like to be riding this wave?

Helms: It’s always exciting and sometimes terrifying when you look at the amount of work that has to be done to accomplish this task, and you see that all of your employees have been working as hard as they possibly can for at least two years, and that that level of effort has to be continued for another 16 to 20 years.

EF: How old are you?

Helms: I’ll be 56 next month.

EF: How many hours per day are you working?

Helms: Mrs. Helms would probably be a better source of that, and she thinks I average 60 hours a week.

EF: You’ve called this a world-changing event. Why?

Helms: The Bakken is the first successful shale oil play. And we have to make the distinction between oil shale and shale oil. Oil shale is the stuff that’s on top of the mountains in Utah and Colorado, which is not thermally mature, and we have to cook it in an oven to make it into oil. That’s oil shale. Nature has turned shale oil into oil, and we’ve just figured out the technology to extract it. The Bakken really is the first place that was done. What we’ve done has gotten the attention of people from France, Poland, and Russia – in the Siberian regions. We’ve had visitors from Australia, Alberta, and Alaska. Almost anywhere that they have a shale basin, they’re eager to learn how we’re doing shale oil. So, it is a world game-changer.

Before I did a big natural gas project with Hess [Hess Corporation, formerly Amerada Hess], much of my work was centered around trying to get vertical wells to produce oil from the Bakken – from numerous old Hess wells that I worked on, completed and hydraulically fracked in the early ‘90s in an attempt to make them produce oil. They always produced oil but never at commercial rates – so it was incredibly gratifying when this technology came along and sort of affirmed all those efforts.

EF: Is it true that Harold Hamm and Continental Oil were first in making it work?

Helms: They were the first to make it work in North Dakota. They were kind of second to the Montana play, which was originally put together by Lyco and Halliburton, where the Halliburton Corporation wanted to partner with Lyco and try hydraulic fracturing in combination with horizontal wells. But the technology they developed there wasn’t successful in North Dakota. So Harold brought it to North Dakota and adapted it and was on the cutting edge. He was the inventor of how we do things in North Dakota, and several innovations along the way.

EF: Have you ever been to Joyce and Fred Evans’ place in the Little Knife River Valley?

Helms: Several times, yes.

EF: If you turn in to the dirt road [leading to their ranch from Highway 8] there are many wells. They’re fairly close together.

Helms: Yes. They [Whiting Petroleum Corporation] drilled that first line of wells, and they’ll be drilling the second line of wells. If you went and talked to their operations people here on the ground, they would share with you that, if they had it to do over again, they would use multi-well pads. What you would see, instead of that row of wells, is half as many pads or a fourth as many pads. And each well pad would have probably four pumping units on it.

EF: You said on TV last night that you’re going to permit 14 pumping units on one pad.

Helms: Correct. We have already permitted a 14, and next month’s docket has some cases for 18 units. So we continue to learn something new as we go. That will be a bit overwhelming, too, as you come over the hill and see a “North Dakota 18.” [As of April 8, 2013, no 18-unit pads had been granted permits.]

We’ve got some pads with six pumping units side by side. The pad is larger, although nowhere near incrementally. So for example, the single well pads that you saw in Fred Evans’ valley – those are four or five acres each – so if you took that to a 14-well pad, you’d be using 70 acres, but we’re not. We’re using 20.

EF: Why are you allowing flaring of gas close to homes? [An oil well and its gas flare can currently be located 500 feet from a home.] We know a family with a pad 800 feet away where a gas flare has blown out several times. If the wind is coming towards them when the flare goes out, they have to move animals and leave their house.

Helms: The law was set by the Legislature – the 500-foot distance – so, we’re really very constrained on both sides by the law. We always try to lean towards safety and towards the general public, but we are constrained by the law in terms of what we can demand of the oil companies, and that is one of the constraints that we operate under.

That should not happen. There is supposed to be an automatic igniter on every one of those flares, and they are never supposed to go out, but we do recognize that all mechanical systems fail and all people make mistakes.

EF: Until you get all the gas captured, there’s no way to avoid flaring close to people’s homes?

Helms: The law can be changed you know. [See update below.]

EF: Do you have any estimate of how much agricultural land has already gone to oil and how much will be lost in the future if you get up to 45,000 wells?

Helms: I don’t think we’ve ever calculated that number.

EF: Are you worried about losing prairie?

Helms: The answer to that would be yes. For the first three years of drilling, we pretty much allowed oil companies to lay out the well spacing and the well pads based on their ownership and how they wanted to develop the Bakken and Three Forks [a formation just beneath the Bakken]. But at that point – about the fourth quarter of 2009 – we were sitting at about 1,500 – 1,700 Bakken wells, and we realized that the play was more enormous than anybody had ever thought. This was one of those wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night sorts of things. Then in December of 2009, Brigham drilled the Williston well and all of a sudden it’s a 16,000-square-mile oil field that we have to develop, not multiple oil fields on different patterns.

So, I sat down with my staff and said, “We can’t play Tetris with people’s farms and ranches and minerals for the rest of our career and have minerals stranded and have well pads everywhere and consume all of the gravel and scoria in our two states and two provinces and all of that. We can’t have 45,000 reserve pits.”

We just can’t do the next 43,000 wells the way we did this first 2,000. And so, we decided to rationalize the whole play. We held a hearing and tried to gather as much consensus as we could from the oil operators, and then we issued a single order that reorganized the entire Bakken oil field – whatever wasn’t already drilled – into north-south 1,280’s, so that it could be developed from east-west road corridors two to four miles apart from multi-well pads. [According to Alison Ritter, press assistant to Lynn D. Helms, “The majority of Bakken and Three Forks wells are permitted and drilled to access minerals included in a 1,280 acre spacing unit. That’s two sections of land that are typically organized on top of each other (north/south) and called stand up 1,280’s. They can be reoriented if need be, to lay down 1,280’s (east/west) to avoid sensitive or critical habitat areas.”]

Now you have your power lines and pipelines and hugely built-up roads spaced two to four miles apart and running east and west. And if you live right along one of those roads, life changes permanently, but the development has to go somewhere. The ideal is to get them four miles apart. That’s our real goal.

EF: You can go four miles now?

Helms: Well, what we do is we put the well heads four miles apart and we put the toes of the wells together in the middle. So then you have four miles of undisturbed land between the rows of wells.

EF: What’s the “toe” of a well?

Helms: That would be the far end, so the heel is where the well makes the curve, and the toe is out at the far end.

This graphic, prepared by the North Dakota Geological Survey, shows the wells in the North Dakota Bakken and their production during the first 60-90 days. Each line indicates the lateral portion of a well. Most Bakken wells are drilled about two miles down and two miles out, and fracking takes place along the lateral portion. In this graphic, you see more wells and shorter laterals in the area just south of Stanley than around Williston. This reflects the evolution of the oil play from northwest-southeast oriented laterals to north-south (standup), long laterals as described in the interview. The wells south of Stanley are older than those around Williston.

This graphic, prepared by the North Dakota Geological Survey, shows the wells in the North Dakota Bakken and their production during the first 60-90 days. Each line indicates the lateral portion of a well. Most Bakken wells are drilled about two miles down and two miles out, and fracking takes place along the lateral portion. In this graphic, you see more wells and shorter laterals in the area just south of Stanley than around Williston. This reflects the evolution of the oil play from northwest-southeast oriented laterals to north-south (standup), long laterals as described in the interview. The wells south of Stanley are older than those around Williston.

EF: Ranchers and farmers we’ve spoken to have complaints about many aspects of the oil boom. I already mentioned the flares. A 94-year-old woman thrilled about oil income said she would never return permanently to her farm now because of the noise and disruption from a well on her land.
Helms: I think a fair amount of the grief that you’re hearing comes from some of the earlier times in the Bakken development, and there were things that happened that shouldn’t have happened. We have changed some laws to diminish that. You know, the number one complaint I used to get from a surface owner was, “I went to town to buy groceries and I came home and there was a well staked out in my pasture, and I had no say in where those stakes went or when they went in, and it’s my property and it’s sacred to me. And how could that happen?”

Well, we changed the law so it can’t happen, and now, before anybody can step on that property – even to start looking at where they might want to put a well – that surface owner has to get seven days’ notice. The owner of that property is given an opportunity to walk the land with the surveyor and talk about the options of moving the well a little here or there or the road a little bit this direction or that direction to minimize the disturbance.

EF: A trucker we met saw another driver dumping toxic waste in a creek. A rancher saw a truck dumping oil drilling waste on a neighbor’s farm. Another interviewee saw a trucker taking water from a rancher’s pond. Even if you add to your staff, how can you stop this sort of thing in such a large area?

Helms: Those are law-breakers. Spills are one thing. We engineer systems to contain the spills and even last year, when we had the high number of spills, 70 percent of them were relatively small and contained to the well site. But there are going to be uncontained spills. Our job is to minimize those. I just met with the attorney general last week about the dumping problem, and one of the things that the deputy sheriffs or the sheriffs’ departments are asking for is help in identifying what was dumped and trying to bring someone to justice for it. I think that’s what you’re going to see going forward, and it will change behavior. I don’t know that it will totally eliminate it, but it will certainly change behavior.

Email update, April 4, 2013:

EF: Why do you oppose current efforts in the legislature to increase the required set-back of oil operations from dwellings to 1,000 feet instead of 500 feet as it is now?

Helms: The NDIC has worked hard to manage and organize the development of the Bakken, most notably, with the establishment of the 15,000 square miles of 1,280 acre spacing units. Should the setback distance change, it would become a whole new ball game as far as management and placement of wells. We would no longer be able to establish east/west corridors, therefore increasing the footprint on the land.

EF: In almost two years of exploring, Terry Evans and I have witnessed spreading discontent among people affected negatively by the oil boom. We have also witnessed or heard about organized opposition to waste dumps in Dodge, White Shield, and the White Earth Valley. Must “collateral damage” to surface-owners and other residents be accepted as the price of drilling oil?

Helms: We recommend you contact the North Dakota Petroleum Council to see the results of their recent survey of ND residents.

EF: At a legislative hearing, a critic – perhaps inadvertently – referred to you as “Mr. Hess.” You worked for what is now called Hess Corporation and Texaco for many years. Do you have a conflict of interest in regulating oil in your state because of that experience?

Helms: Many could argue that my industry experience makes me best suited for this position. I have been on the other side of the table testifying before the commission, so I know the thought process of a witness. This issue was best laid out most recently in a story published in a local paper: Table’s turned: Lynn Helms goes from oil industry to oil regulator.

Lynn D. Helms, Director, Department of Mineral Resources, North Dakota Industrial Commission, April 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Lynn D. Helms, Director, Department of Mineral Resources, North Dakota Industrial Commission, April 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Who Will Take Responsibility?

Jorgenson Valley, soon to be crossed by a pipeline, November 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Jorgenson Valley, soon to be crossed by a pipeline, November 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

May 2012

The word “sacrament” comes to mind as Terry and I drive into Brenda and Richard Jorgenson’s Box J Ranch north of Tioga on a chilly spring afternoon. A sacrament is an outward sign of invisible, inward grace, and that’s how the Jorgensons see the landscape surrounding us now.

They run 100 Black Angus cattle on 2,240 acres at the north end of the White Earth Valley, much of it native prairie. They also farm flax, alfalfa, and spring wheat. “I feel the bond to this place in my soul,” Brenda told us when we first met a year ago. “Providing food is our mission and calling.”

On this afternoon, they serve lunch and then bring out arrowheads and other Native American artifacts and display them on the dining room table. It’s a large collection, gathered over the years since Richard’s Norwegian ancestors homesteaded here almost a century ago.

Artifacts found on Jorgenson land, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Artifacts found on Jorgenson land, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

As Terry takes photographs, Brenda describes a discussion last year with a state oil and gas regulator about an oil drilling waste pit on the ranch. He claimed the plastic liner in the pit, the barrier between toxic liquids and their soil, would last for at least 40 years. “You won’t be around after that anyway,” he said. “What do you care what happens after you’re gone?”

“A chasm separates that way of thinking and ours,” Brenda tells us. “We’ve had the privilege of living here and calling it home because generations before us cared for the land. We owe it to future generations to do the same.”

For the tour, we get into their SUV and drive about ½ mile to a field where they used to grow flax. The first – and so far only – oil well on their property went up here in late 2010. We walk across the five-acre pad, covered in red scoria, past a pumpjack and tanks of oil and salt water, and stop before a long line of Russian olive trees planted 30 years ago. Many of the trees have died, and others are clearly dying. A plant pathologist and county agent have documented the losses in letters to the oil company, with no response so far. Brenda shows us a photograph she took of a road grader moving earth at the far edge of the pad, damaging some trees. She believes other trees may have died from toxic fumes or hydrological changes caused by compaction that cut off sources of water.

This early damage to a symbol of good stewardship (the trees prevented soil erosion) played a key role in making Brenda an activist. She often says the oil boom has turned her into something she never was before: angry, assertive, and outspoken. When the trees began dying, she wrote letters of complaint to the oil company and various regulatory agencies and published a short piece in the newsletter of the Dakota Resource Council, a grassroots organization working to improve conditions for landowners in the oil patch:


A waste pit near the trees, which is filled in now, overflowed during the 2011 spring thaw (along with 56 others around the Bakken), sending unknown toxic fluids across the road between Brenda’s and her daughter’s houses and down towards the White Earth River. In the days that followed, members of Brenda’s extended family were exposed to fumes from those fluids while walking or driving on the road. Brenda, her son-in-law, and granddaughter got sick with symptoms including cough, laryngitis, and burning eyes. Brenda tried, but failed, to get the contents of the pit tested. No company or regulatory agency would do it for her, and it would have cost $2,700 to get it done herself. She wrote letters to the oil company, which told her it had followed “standard procedures” in disposing of the waste, and she also wrote to county, state, and federal regulatory agencies, with no result. Most people she called on the telephone said, “This isn’t our responsibility.”

At that point she began addressing her letters, “To whoever will take responsibility.”

Oil pad at Jorgenson's driveway, April 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Oil pad at Jorgenson’s driveway, April 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Our next stop is a larger oil pad on the other side of the road. Though it’s not on Jorgenson land, it’s at the bottom of their driveway and dominates the area southwest of their house, as Terry’s photograph shows. The company is about to expand this pad for more wells. Thousands of dust-creating truck-trips are necessary for the disruptive drilling and fracking, and Brenda and Richard dread what lies ahead. A gas flare burns above the pad, which is located just 800 feet from their living room. As we reported in an earlier entry, the flare has blown out six times, forcing them to flee their home and move animals away from gas fumes.

From there, we drive on prairie trails across the ranch through green pastures and stop at a line of electric power poles recently erected to serve the oil industry. Richard has heard that 4,900 new wells will be drilled in this county, Mountrail, in the next few years. He doesn’t know yet how many will be built on, or near, his and Brenda’s land. They own only 137 mineral acres under their 2,240 acres. The rest had already been sold when Richard’s father bought most of the property where they now ranch and farm.

We drive by Battle Hill, where the Sioux and Assiniboine fought, and pause by the ruins of a barn Richard’s grandfather built in 1915. From there we head downhill across the narrow White Earth River (called “the creek” here) and stop near a new oil road slashed through native prairie to service a large pad under construction on property owned by Richard’s cousin. Dirt and equipment block the road to the Jorgenson’s farm fields just to the north. Richard politely asks a construction worker, “How can I get to my fields?” The man assures him the blockage will be removed soon, but the question echoes in my mind.

How many more disruptions to their lives will the Jorgensons be able to stand?

Later, back at the house, Brenda points through the living room window to prairie hills and coulees where a wide trench will soon be dug for a 12” high-pressure gas pipeline that will cut through their property on its way from Tioga to a main line about 80 miles away. They and a group of neighbors have struggled for more than a year to stop construction of the pipeline in this beautiful place. They organized a prayer circle on the designated land, testified in legislative hearings, and wrote dozens of petitions and letters, but now they have lost the battle. By late winter, the prairie along a wide swath of the ranch will be torn up. Though the company promises to put the topsoil back, it will never be the same.

Richard says, “When the construction is finished, we’ll have a bomb in our backyard,” referring to the explosive potential of gas under 2,200 pounds of pressure per square inch.

What have the Jorgensons gained from the oil boom? Not much, and even if they were getting rich, it wouldn’t change how they feel about damage to their land. They got a one-time surface-rights payment for the well on their property down the road and are receiving royalties for the 38 mineral acres they own that have been drilled so far. Their other mineral acres have been leased out, but the company hasn’t informed Richard and Brenda where, when – or if – it plans to drill.

March 25, 2013

I call the Jorgensons for fact-checking and Richard answers. It has been snowing during these early days of their calving season, and he and Brenda had rescued two newborn calves from snow so deep they couldn’t stand up. Pulling them on a sled behind a snowmobile, the Jorgensons took the calves into the barn and fed them by bottle the first night. The next day, Richard brought one of the mothers into the barn so both calves could be taught how to nurse (cold and separation had interrupted instincts), and then he took all three back onto snowy prairie, where the second calf was reunited with its mother. Four other calves have since been born, and so far all are thriving.

In our conversation, Richard tells me that he and Brenda wouldn’t lease any of their mineral acres for oil drilling if they had it to do again. The action would have been symbolic – a refusal to accept income born of destruction – and wouldn’t have prevented drilling on their former flax field or more wells on the ranch in the future. Like the Davises, the Jorgensons can’t prevent oil companies from reaching mineral acres other people own.

But there is one “ray of hope,” he says. The newest well on the pad at the bottom of the driveway is pumping only around 100 barrels of petroleum a day, not enough to pay for the $13 million it cost to drill.

“If the yield is this low, perhaps they won’t come back,” he tells me, but I hear little optimism in his voice.

Brenda is now a key member of the Dakota Resource Council (DRC) task force responsible for directing the organization’s work on oil and gas issues. She also works closely with the more conservative Northwest Landowners’ Association (NLA) in advocating surface owners’ rights. She has testified on numerous bills before legislative committees in Bismarck and is helping lobby for legislation that would mandate the placement of oil operations at least 1,000 feet from dwellings, not 500 feet as allowed now. DRC task force members have circulated a petition in favor of the legislation, which hundreds of people have signed. The state’s top oil and gas regulators oppose the change, and it is unlikely to pass, but the movement to “build a better Bakken” has had some success, as we’ll see in a future entry of this blog.

Brenda Jorgenson, farmer/rancher and steward of the land, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Brenda Jorgenson, farmer/rancher and steward of the land, May 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.