Where Will the Prairie Chickens Dance?
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:
TEXT OF SPEECH HERE
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
POEM NEEDED HERE
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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?”
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.
The High Broken Ash — Part II
June 2011 (continued)
Terry and I stand in silence above the oil pad cut from native prairie on the Ash Coulee Ranch in the White Earth Valley of North Dakota.
It’s our first close look at the industrialization of sparsely populated, rural land caused by the oil boom. The industry – drilling, fracking, transporting, pumping, and piping oil – poses a serious threat to irreplaceable prairie like that on the Ash Coulee Ranch.
As we walk back up the road, Scott Davis says, “The well tore a chunk out of me. That land was a birthright for my children.”
Though he owns the surface of his land, Scott doesn’t own all the mineral rights underneath, and he couldn’t stop the oil company from drilling. This seeming anomaly – that he can’t keep an oil well off of his property – will be explored in our next post.
Now he opens a ranch gate, and we walk through rain-wet blue grama grass to visit his Appaloosa horses, including a mother and colt, recently born. They trot towards us, eager to see Scott. We scratch ears and get nuzzled in return.
The 360 degree landscape is more varied than I first thought – not only virgin prairie but farm fields, a few ranch houses, and, here and there, raised, red oil pads with drilling rigs or pumpjacks. We’re looking over broad grasslands watered by springs flowing from these heights to a valley below. The White Earth River runs south through the valley to join the Missouri, 20 miles away, not far above where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-1805.
After a while, we drive a little farther north and pass through another gate into a pasture to see the ranch’s teepee stones. Steve leads the way, pointing to white stones the size of soccer balls in the grass. Most are scattered, but in a few places circles of stones remain. For centuries, Native Americans living along the Missouri moved to higher land in summer to escape heat and mosquitoes, and the Davis brothers believe the stones anchored those summer visitors’ homes. Ranchers in this part of North Dakota often find haunting reminders of earlier lives on their land.
Terry photographs Steve as he walks from circle to circle in the late afternoon sun. From where I stand, the stones seem to glow.
Healthy prairie like we’re seeing is precious partly because of the great variety of species it contains. In severe flood or drought, some species will survive, providing food for animals and securing the soil underneath. On a later visit, prairie biologist Alexey Shipunov drives up from Minot State University to explore the ranch with us. In two hours he points out more than 50 species, including liatris, aster, sage, echinacea, yarrow, wild asparagus, and hemlock. We follow him down a coulee alongside a natural spring, where the temperature is 10 degrees cooler and we’re surrounded by most every shade of green. I hear Alexey gasp as he finds a native thistle and other species he’s never seen in the grasslands of Russia (where he’s from) or anywhere else. Scott is also seeing species for the first time. “Some go dormant when it’s dry,” he tells me, “but this year we’ve had a lot of rain.”
Alexey turns to us and exclaims, “This community looks almost untouched!”
It’s a treasure the Davises are determined to protect. They’ve lost part of their prairie to oil and don’t want to lose any more.
* * *
When we first arrived in North Dakota, on June 1, the Mouse River was flooding, forcing Scott Davis’s sister and her husband out of their Minot home. Scott and his wife Joanne had hooked a 24 foot-long cattle trailer to their truck and rushed to Minot to save family heirlooms. Now, on the final day of this visit, Terry and I return to the ranch to help move furniture into the trailer again. Scott’s sister will place it in storage for now.
Among the pieces is a pew from a Methodist church in Tioga where Scott’s family worshiped when he was young. The church became a pioneer museum after the Davis family was one of only two families attending. We carry the pew into the trailer and then begin to move antiques that had traveled from Sweden with Scott’s great-grandmother more than a century ago – an oak organ, several tables, a rocking chair. Scott’s son’s puppy darts among us. Soon daughter Sarah arrives with her husband and three-week old baby girl. There’s a lot of ribbing and joking as we work.
After a while, someone removes a protective blanket from a wooden dressmaker’s mannequin – also originally from Sweden. It seems almost alive, and I can’t take my eyes off it. Scott steps forward, lifts it gently, and carries it into the cattle trailer, where he ties it securely in place with an old scarf. He stands for a while considering it and the rocking chair.
I watch until he turns around.
“I can still see my grandmother in that chair,” he says to himself and goes back to work.
Later I wonder if the rocking chair, mannequin, and prairie represent something timeless in Scott’s otherwise all-too-temporal life. He suffered and almost died during the 1990s from a rare liver disease, survived because of a last-minute transplant, and then lost part of his colon to ulcerative colitis. Yet, he still bales hay, delivers calves, and brands cattle, among other ranch chores. Terry describes Scott as “masked.” His surface appearance belies devastation inside.
“How will I capture it in a photograph?” she wonders. “He’s like the fracked prairie. The surface contains the visible wounds of the pads, but the greater injury lies underneath.”
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.
The High Broken Ash — Part I
Before leaving for our first trip to Williston, epicenter of the North Dakota oil boom, I find a book-length poem by Thomas McGrath, “Letter to an Imaginary Friend,” to use as a charm against friends and family who disparage the state as boring, fly-over country. “There’s nothing up there,” some have said. “Why not drill for oil?”
North Dakota has produced some good writers, but for me, the poetry of McGrath answers that question best.
For a different sort of guide, I search North Dakota websites and discover an advertisement for an auction of registered Black Angus bulls on Scott Davis’s Ash Coulee Ranch in White Earth, about an hour east of Williston. The name catches my eye. I had just read a McGrath poem mentioning a “high broken ash.”
In Norse mythology, a broken ash, the tree of life, would signal a fractured world.
I call Scott Davis on the telephone. Even after years of reporting, the first call on a story makes me nervous.
“You don’t know me,” I say, “but please don’t hang up.”
A few weeks later, photographer Terry Evans (flying from Chicago) and I (from San Francisco) meet at Minot International Airport and begin our exploration of a modern day oil boom. We rent an all-wheel drive SUV and head west through the 300,000 square-mile Williston Basin, where buffalo, beaver, and elk were once so tame and plentiful that Lewis and Clark struggled to find words to describe them. Beneath us lie multiple layers of entrapped petroleum, the product of 75 million years of geologic history. We see sandstone and shale on bluffs and stream banks, evidence of ancient inland seas. This is land where buffalo trails carved over centuries are still visible from the air.
Alongside us: grasslands green as Killarney, fields planted in spring wheat, drilling rigs, pumpjacks, and water tanks the size of small buildings on raised platforms of dirt and clinker – the red gravel also called scoria. 75,000-pound oil trucks dominate the highway, especially near Stanley, a railroad town. Twenty miles beyond, we turn north into the White Earth Valley.
Scott Davis had described what to expect, and Terry and I – both originally from Kansas – are familiar with such places. But now we’re struck dumb by the beauty of coulees and native prairie climbing from the White Earth River to bluffs high above. We roll down windows, get distracted by birdsong and breeze, and drive too far, past the ranch into a town that seems on the cusp of change. Lilac bushes bloom beside abandoned houses and a new RV park for oil workers fills the playground of a long-closed school.
It’s White Earth, once the western terminus of the Great Northern Railroad, where tens of thousands of settlers stepped down from trains and headed into the unknown.
We turn back again until we see someone.
“Where’s the Davis Place?”
“Just south – second house.”
And there it is – a two-bedroom modular home surrounded by machinery and vehicles in need of repair. If it’s true – as some say in these parts – that a man’s worth is judged by the number of his pistons, this is a real man’s home. Weaving through trucks and decrepit cars, we bump over ruts in the driveway and park below the house, which is small and fairly new. Front and side decks are still under construction. Scott Davis’s father and brother live here; Scott resides in Tioga with his wife and youngest son but spends most days on the ranch. Beside us, muddy paddocks surround a couple of large metal barns. We’re on a slight rise above the White Earth River. Just beyond us, prairie hills dotted with berry bushes and freshly leaved trees reach to the western rim of the valley.
Scott’s brother Steve – dressed in an old grey sweatshirt and jeans – comes out to greet us. He says his brother is delivering bulls and will arrive home soon. We make our way through carpentry tools to the deck, and Steve begins to talk. Terry gets up from time to time to take photographs – she calls them “notes” – with her digital camera.
This is far north country where it’s almost supper time but feels like early afternoon. Crickets and frogs sing in the coulee; ash leaves rustle in the breeze.
Steve’s soft, urgent voice: “Oil is changing how we live. Before the boom, we’d leave for two weeks without locking the door. We can’t drive now on some roads – they’re ruined by truck traffic. Grocery stores can’t stock enough food; people who’ve moved here for jobs have no place to live. In White Earth, an oil company put in its own power for workers’ RV homes.
“The well on our land has been nothing but trouble. Before dirt was moved, the site was supposed to be fenced to protect our animals. It wasn’t. Cows got out, and I had to go up and build the fence myself.
“The oil companies treat us like a bothersome fly. We’re a nuisance for them.”
Steve returned home in 2008 from Washington State, where he taught physical education and coached high school football. He came back to help his handicapped father and work with Scott on the ranch. He had missed North Dakota but says, “The place I loved isn’t here anymore.”
When Scott arrives, he joins us on the deck. He’s taller than Steve and thinner. It seems to me the two of them communicate without words. Scott explains that he worked for 20 years in oil fields in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“Oil has done a lot for us. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to hold onto the land in hard times. My children would have taken off to work in other states, but now they’ve got good jobs here.”
In the coming 18 months of exploring northwestern North Dakota, we will learn that the Davis family’s experience with oil is fairly common, embodying the promise and peril of the industrial transformation of this place.
As shadows lengthen, Scott loads us into his pickup truck, bumps up an old highway, and turns north on a dirt road running alongside the upper pastures of the ranch. His father, who taught school for many years in Tioga, borrowed money to buy the land when Scott and Steve were young and then almost lost it in the late ‘70s when interest rates rose and commodity prices fell. Scott took a job insulating pipes for an oil company, made the loan payments, and saved the land. Now he owns 1,100 acres and leases about 700 more. He and Steve raise registered Black Angus cattle. Their herd had produced 90 calves earlier in the year, but coyotes killed four, and a pair of twin calves also died.
“You don’t get over losing a calf,” Scott tells us. “In 2010, we saved three sets of twins who went on to raise their own calves.
“What I’m best at is breeding cattle. In my opinion, we have some of the best in the world. We’re selling grass, you know, in the cows. I think people would value prairie more if they understood they’re eating grass when they eat the cows. Grass, like oil, is stored energy.”
We turn onto a new oil road gouged crudely from prairie, drive 200 feet, and get out to walk, trying not to trip on deep ruts as we go. (Later in the week, Steve’s truck will get stuck on this road, and an oil worker will refuse to push him out, a sharp violation of the prairie tradition of lending a hand.) We’re walking downhill towards the White Earth River. Scott points with pride to his virgin prairie. 800 of the ranch’s 1,100 acres have never been plowed. He keeps cattle completely off some land and moves them frequently on the rest to prevent overgrazing. Terry, who has spent a lifetime photographing prairie, says she’s seldom seen such healthy grasslands on an active cattle ranch.
We come around a bend and suddenly see a 16-acre oil pad surrounded by huge tanks holding hundreds of thousands of tons of chemicals, sand, and water. In coming days they’ll be pumped at high pressure through a wellhead into the Bakken formation two miles under the surface of the earth with enough force to free oil from shale. Big signs with red letters warn, “Danger! No Trespassing! Combustible Chemicals!”
“It broke my heart when they tore up our virgin prairie,” Scott says. “But we couldn’t stop them. You can’t prevent an oil company from getting access to what they own.”