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?”