Dakota Is Everywhere

The fracking boom in North Dakota is transforming the prairie and disrupting the lives of the people who live there.

Elk and bison, Little Knife River Valley, May 2012. [Photo by Terry Evans]

For two years photographer Terry Evans and I have been exploring a modern-day oil boom on the North Dakota prairie. We’ve traveled seven times to the area of the Bakken boom, named for a shale formation two miles underground. New methods of hydraulic fracturing are making ever-more petroleum available from the shale, and we have tried to document some of the consequences for the prairie and those who depend on it for their livelihood.

Prairie and oil are both stored energy from the sun.

When Terry and I first arrived in Williston, epicenter of the boom, in June 2011, we had trouble finding a place to stay. Roustabouts and truck drivers had filled the motels. Some people were sleeping in their cars in the Walmart parking lot. We finally found rooms just over the Montana border, near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers; on future trips we made reservations weeks ahead.

As we traveled across territory made famous two centuries ago by the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, we experienced stories as deep as the shale and as wide as the prairie. Some of these stories appeared earlier this year in an 11-part blog on the website of the Center for Art + Environment, at the Nevada Museum of Art, where Terry and I are Fellows. Recently, some events and scenes we mentioned briefly, or not at all, have taken on new significance for me. Two examples:

East of Williston, we toured a large “man camp” — prefab housing erected quickly for oil workers. Afterwards, I stood alone near one of the barrack-like buildings, taking in the scene. A west wind was blowing, as it usually does in North Dakota, and construction dust filled the air. (Dust is omnipresent in the oil patch.) Nearby, a young Labrador retriever attached by a long rope to a front door-handle was barking, in frustration or despair. We were on the south side of Highway 2, the four-lane strip running through the oil patch, and beyond us, towards the Missouri River, lay vast, mostly open lands. There was no one in the camp except the dog and the superintendent who had given us the tour. Everyone else was working the long hours common in the oil industry, or asleep. Suddenly I felt chilled by a sort of shadow, something invisible and ominous. As we drove away, I could see, just beyond the dusty dormitory-camp, that the prairie was green and vibrantly alive — an unsettling juxtaposition.

Another day, at an RV camp near the small town of White Earth, we walked past a “No Trespassing” sign to talk to residents about the attraction of oil jobs. The sign was off to the side, and I can’t remember seeing it. We met a woman with pots of red geraniums around the door of her RV. In Missouri, she and her husband had owned two Midas Muffler Shops that had failed, for reasons still unclear. They learned about the Bakken boom online, she said, and now her husband was making “up to $80,000 a year” trucking water to oil sites. She was working as a cook in a school cafeteria about 15 miles away. A younger man, a college graduate, came across the lot to talk as well. He had lost his Minneapolis business in the recession and was now working on a pipeline-building crew.

Soon the owner of the camp came running from his office, berating us for trespassing. He more or less forced us back to the main road. “I could call the police,” he threatened. “You have no idea how devastated these people are. You didn’t see smiles, did you? Banks won’t let them in the back door. Husbands are here without wives. There are fights in bars. I won’t allow you to photograph the misery of people in this camp.” And then: “This isn’t a boom. It’s an industry. They’re putting in $50 million office buildings. This is going to be Anchorage, Alaska, right here.”

Today, reading my travel notes, I understand that his angry words were more illuminating than I’d realized then. Outside Williston and in White Earth, at the camps where the oil workers were living, Terry and I felt as if we’d traveled back to scenes from the Great Depression. Today I can see that again and again during our journeys, boosters of the boom urged us to discount damage from the oil industry — to see it as offset by the economic boon of relatively high-paying jobs in a time of high unemployment. Few boasted that Bakken oil might make the United States more energy independent. Mostly they emphasized the multiplier effect of boom-related payrolls on places and people broken by tough times, not only in the recent recession, but during the droughts and floods that have made North Dakota a hard place to earn a living.

That’s why a letter to the editor of the Williston Herald, from a woman we met at a meeting organized by the Dakota Resource Council, caught Terry’s and my attention this past February. Shelly Ventsch, of New Town, put it more clearly than almost anyone we’d met:

Much of what I cherished is gone or disappearing. … I am trying to navigate farm equipment through a string of crazy drivers of semis 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.

Oil pads and prairie potholes northeast of McGregor, May 2012. [Photo by Terry Evans]

When Terry and I began our exploration, about 5,500 oil wells were producing 11.5 million barrels of petroleum monthly. Now about 9,000 wells are pumping more than double that amount, and the numbers are rising rapidly. On the ground and also from the air, we witnessed a proliferation of sites for drilling, fracking, pumping, shipping, piping, refining and dumping waste from oil.

Terry’s photographs reveal a constant tension between the industrial facilities and the mysterious beauty and timelessness of prairie. We were exploring early enough in the boom to experience still-vast stretches of native prairie, but that is changing. The industry is a juggernaut in the original sense: the word derives from Sanskrit and recalls Vishnu’s image being carried on a cart with large wheels that could crush devotees along its path. Like the Hindu god, the oil industry is at once creative and destructive. If all proceeds as planned, 45,000 more wells will be drilled into the Bakken and Three Forks Formation in the coming years, with implications that reach far beyond the prairie.

The International Energy Agency released a study last year predicting 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, in North Dakota and elsewhere. That same report reminded us that two-thirds of the earth’s remaining fossil fuels would need to remain in the ground until 2050 to avoid the earth’s temperature rising more than two degrees Celsius; as documented in the Copenhagen Accord, scientists believe this is the limit beyond which further climate change will become dangerous. (Our world is still profoundly dependent on petroleum. Terry and I were acutely aware of this each time we boarded an airplane to North Dakota and traveled to remote drilling sites in a rented SUV.)

North Dakota has already experienced economic swings with national implications. Before petroleum, there were booms in fur, gold, railroad, land, and banking; there was a smaller oil boom in the 1950s, too. Cycles of greed and grief are familiar in American history, which is one reason why the refrain, “Dakota is everywhere,” occurs repeatedly in Letter to an Imaginary Friend, Thomas McGrath’s epic poem about land and life in his home state.

Southbound the coulee
Carries its freight of moonlight toward the fox-brightened river breaks.
All time condenses here. Dakota is everywhere.

Bullish on the Bakken

Brigham Exploration, a company based in Austin, Texas, was one of several operators in North Dakota and elsewhere that figured out how to drill two-mile-long, lateral wells and frack them in multiple stages to free oil from shale. That new technology, along with high oil prices, made drilling in the deep Bakken shale economically feasible. As production increased in late 2011, Statoil, which is 67 percent owned by the Norwegian government, became so bullish on the Bakken that it bought Brigham for $4.7 billion, gaining Brigham’s expertise and 375,000 net acres in North Dakota. Brigham’s CEO and others moved on, but engineer Russell Rankin stayed in the Bakken as Statoil’s regional manager, and he met with us in Williston late last year.

I wrote about Rankin in our Art + Environment blog and bring him up again here because he’s important, since I am being partly elegiac for all that’s being lost in the Bakken boom. Rankin represents an especially forward-looking aspect of the oil industry in North Dakota. Before meeting him, I read Walt Whitman’s Song of the Exposition because I wanted to feel what it was like when a poet could “sing” an industrial boom.

Mark the spirit of invention everywhere, thy rapid patents,
Thy continual workshops, foundries, risen or rising, a
See, from their chimneys how the tall flame-fires stream.

Rankin is 39 years old, deferential and polite. He told us Brigham/Statoil had quadrupled production —far more than he’d anticipated — since Terry and I first visited the state two summers ago. We drove together to a new Statoil site, a 176-foot-high Sidewinder drilling rig that stood on a rise a few miles north of the Missouri River. The bright red rig — a sharp contrast against the light snow — had robotic feet and in the next few weeks would “walk” in order to drill two boreholes.

From the rise, I could see that we were in the middle of what would eventually be a multitude of wells along a section line road. Barely visible — almost ghostly in the fog — were several pumpjacks and a wide gash through the prairie — a trench for a pipeline under construction. Behind us, just over the hill, was a barn, and I figured a farmhouse wasn’t far away. Rankin didn’t know who owned the mineral rights Statoil had leased to drill the well. (In North Dakota, in tough times, people have sold their mineral rights to save farms and ranches, meaning land owners sometimes don’t benefit much from wells drilled on their property.)

As I observed the industrial structures, I was struck by the radical transformation of formerly rural land. North Dakota was, until recently, about 18 percent prairie — a source of pride to many in the state. Terry’s photographs of the changing landscape document continuing loss and fragmentation of that prairie. Fragmentation is an enemy of the wide variety of plants and grasses that make a healthy prairie. It can also be the death knell for wildlife that depends on those plants and grasses.

Before climbing onto the Sidewinder rig, we went into a trailer serving as headquarters for the drilling operation known as “geosteering” and met the workers. They would soon guide a drill bit two miles down into the earth, gradually executing a 90-degree bend, and then go two miles more laterally through dolomitic sandstone lying between two layers of shale. Sensors on the drill bit would provide the information needed to guide it by remote control. “It’s like steering a car backwards,” Rankin said. After drilling, the well would be hydraulically fractured. Oil companies have fracked in North Dakota and elsewhere for a long time, but only in recent years have they reached current levels of precision, reach and explosive force. Compressors pump tens of thousands of tons of chemicals (some toxic), several million gallons of water, and 1,000 to 2,000 tons of sand into a well at about 8,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. The liquid shoots down the pipe and when it reaches the two-mile long horizontal portion, it explodes out of holes every couple of hundred feet, fracturing the shale to release petroleum.

Later that afternoon, Rankin led us over large vats of churning “mud” — the drilling fluid (diesel fuel, water and chemicals) that would clean and cool the drill bit and carry cuttings out of the hole. “Statoil is working towards a mineral-based, environmentally friendly mud,” he told us. He also said Statoil will use 50 percent recycled water for fracking sometime in the near future (other oil companies are talking about using recycled water too). He was eager to explain that his company is environmentally conscious, perhaps because he sensed critics of the oil industry nipping at his heels.

Oil pad below the Jorgensons’ home, April 2012. [Photo by Terry Evans]

I thought of rancher Brenda Jorgenson, a critic of industry recklessness, on the Statoil rig that day. She and her husband Richard run 100 Black Angus cattle on 2,240 mostly prairie acres in the White Earth Valley northeast of Tioga. They also farm flax, alfalfa and spring wheat. “I feel the bond to this place in my soul,” Brenda told us on the first of several visits. “Providing food is our mission and calling.” She described a discussion last year with a state oil and gas regulator about the waste pit near the oil well on their land. He claimed that a plastic liner — the barrier between toxic liquids in the pit and the soil — would last for at least 40 years. “You won’t be around after that anyway,” he told Brenda. “What do you care what happens after you’re gone?”

“A chasm separates that way of thinking and ours,” Brenda said. “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.”

An oil well was drilled on one of their flax fields in late 2010. Construction killed more than 50 olive trees planted on that land as a soil conservation measure 30 years earlier. Brenda showed us a photograph of a road grader moving earth at the far edge of the oil pad, damaging trees. She believes other trees 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 played a key role in making Brenda something she says she never was before: angry, assertive and outspoken. She wrote letters of complaint to the oil company and regulatory agencies, with no response. Then the waste pit near the well, which is filled in now, overflowed during the 2011 spring thaw, sending unknown toxic fluids across the road between Brenda’s and her daughter’s houses and down towards the White Earth River. (57 pits in northwestern North Dakota overflowed that spring.) In the days that followed, members of Brenda’s extended family were exposed to fumes from those fluids. Brenda, her son-in-law and her granddaughter suffered symptoms like cough, laryngitis and burning eyes. Brenda tried, but failed, to get the contents of the pit tested; no company or regulatory agency would do the testing, and it would have cost $2,700 to get it done on her own. Again she wrote letters to the oil company, which now claimed it had followed “standard procedures” in disposing of the waste; again she 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.”

Across from the oil well and just down the road is a larger pad with the usual tanks and a well. 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 will eventually have multiple wells on that pad.

A gas flare just 800 feet from their living room burns above the pad. The flare has blown out six times, and the resulting fumes have driven the Jorgensons from their home. Brenda has written many letters about this to the oil company and state regulators. (These too got no response.) She also helped circulate a petition organized by the Dakota Resource Council that hundreds signed. It endorsed a bill calling for the placement of oil operations at least 1,000 feet from dwellings (not 500 feet as permitted now.) The bill got amended several times and never made it out of a North Dakota Senate Committee.

I called Brenda and Richard recently to pose a question I hadn’t asked before. “If you had it to do over again, would you lease any mineral acres to an oil company?” They own only 137 of the mineral acres under their large ranch (earlier owners, including Richard’s father and grandfather, had sold off the rest). 38 have been drilled so far. They’ve received only a small sum of money from the sites ruining their daily lives. Richard said they’d refuse to lease any of their mineral acres if they had it to do over again.

The refusal would have been symbolic, a decision not to accept income born of destruction, and it wouldn’t have prevented the drilling of the well on their former flax field or more wells on the ranch in the future. In North Dakota, as elsewhere in the nation, state law ensures that mineral holders can exploit what they own, even if a landowner objects.

“It broke my heart when they tore up our prairie

The problems faced by the Jorgensons and other ranchers we met are legion. According to state records cited by Nicholas Kusnetz in a June 2012 article in ProPublica, oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater, or other fluids in 2011. Kusnetz wrote that state regulators also acknowledge many more illicit releases that went unreported. We met a trucker over dinner one night in Williston who had just witnessed another driver dump drilling waste in a stream south of town. Over lunch in Tioga, a farmer described seeing waste discharged in a newly planted field.

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.

“I think people would value prairie more if they understood they’re eating grass when they eat the cows,” rancher Scott Davis told us as we walked down a road gouged across his land by an oil company for its new well. Davis owns 1,100 acres of land, 80 percent of it prairie, in the White Earth Valley, and 240 mineral acres underneath. “It broke my heart when they tore up our virgin prairie,” he said as we stood on a rise above the huge scoria-covered oil pad and well on what had been his favorite land. But we couldn’t stop them.” Like Brenda Jorgenson, Davis is working with the Dakota Resource Council and other groups to get more and better regulation of an industry they consider often out of control.

Scott and his brother Steve are candid about benefitting from the boom. They receive checks every couple of months from the mineral rights they still own, and they got a one-time payment of $22,500 from the company for use of the land for the well, road and pipeline. Three of Scott’s children, who also revere the prairie, have recently built modular homes on the ranch, which they paid for with money from oil-related jobs. Scott says his children most likely would have left North Dakota if not for the boom. “I’m not opposed to all drilling,” he says. “I just want them to do it safely for people, animals and land.”

Meanwhile, life for the Davis family — and for so many others — continues to change. Today Scott and Steve lock the doors to their houses and cars, which they never did before. They try to travel on the back roads with less traffic and to buy groceries in small towns, like Powers Lake, instead of busy Tioga. They no longer herd cattle even on remote dirt roads because of speeding trucks. Crime, almost nonexistent in the past, is much more common, and the Davises, like many other long-time residents, are wary of strangers in ways they never were before.

As Scott Davis said to us, more than once: “Our way of life as we know it is over.”

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Editors' Note

Fractured: North Dakota’s Oil Boom, an exhibition of Terry Evans’s photographs and Elizabeth Farnsworth’s writing, was on view recently at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Terry Evans and Elizabeth Farnsworth, “Dakota Is Everywhere,” Places Journal, June 2013. Accessed 21 Mar 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/130606

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