The High Broken Ash — Part III

Kevin Davis' porch near White Earth, ND, June 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

Kevin Davis’ porch near White Earth, ND, June 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.


June 2011

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.”

Kevin in his new house, August 2011

Kevin in his new house, August 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

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.

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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.”

Kevin's House, June 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

Kevin’s House, June 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

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.

Record book found in White Earth Museum, August 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.

Record book found in White Earth Museum, August 2011. Photo by Terry Evans.