Who Will Take Responsibility?
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.
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:
NEED QUOTE/POEM HERE
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.”
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.
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 High Broken Ash — Part III
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Dakota is Everywhere
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.”
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.”
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.