Dakota is Everywhere

Water Tank with Flare in Distance

Water Tank with Flare in Distance


November 2012

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.”

Russell Rankin

Russell Rankin

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.”

Blow Out Prevention Stack

Blow Out Prevention Stack

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.