Roses and Money: Beneficiaries of the Boom

Oil rig on Fred and Joyce Evans’ land, Little Knife River Valley, October 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

Oil rig on Fred and Joyce Evans’ land, Little Knife River Valley, October 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.


August 2012

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.

Fred and Joyce Evans at home, Little Knife River Valley, October 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

Fred and Joyce Evans at home, Little Knife River Valley, October 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

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.”

* * *

Edyth Pladson at home in Wildrose, August 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Edyth Pladson at home in Wildrose, August 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

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.”

Nelson Bird Bear’s home near Mandaree, Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, August 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

Nelson Bird Bear’s home near Mandaree, Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, August 2012. Photo by Terry Evans.

* * *

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.