Part IV: The Calm After the Boom

 /  April 18, 2016, 1:56 p.m.


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The following story was made possible through the Gate Reporting Grant: an annual stipend supported by the Institute of Politics and awarded to writers pursuing complex and long-form investigative stories. In 2015, the grant was awarded to Dake Kang and Sean Maher. The following is the fourth part of their investigation into fracking in North Dakota. The first installment can be found here, the second here and the third here

A Black Harvest

For a few days in September 2013, Steve Jensen caught occasional whiffs of crude oil on the brisk North Dakota winds, mingling with the smell of freshly cut wheat. As he drove his tractor on his farm near Tioga, the sharp blades of the header reaping row after row of amber durum wheat, he noticed a slick sheen on the tires of his machine. He dismounted and found crude oil squelching beneath his feet, saturating the rich brown loam of his farm. A closer look revealed the oil gushing up from the earth, spurting six inches into the air from a “perfectly round, quarter-inch hole.” By the time Jensen noticed, several inches of crude had accumulated on the surface.

Over the next few years, he would become all too familiar with the sight and smell of crude, as his family farm became a toxic cleanup site, the once-fertile topsoil carried off in trucks for disposal. The oil in Jensen’s field was merely a small fraction of a spill issuing from an underground pipe owned by Tesoro Logistics that extended far below the surface. In all, 20,600 barrels of oil were spilled before the leak was stopped, and seven football fields of farmland were turned into a toxic waste site.

After Jensen reported the spill, it took twelve days for the Department of Health to make that information public. Moreover, because all pipes have meters at both ends, any discrepancy between the amount pumped into the pipe, and the amount coming out should have been noted, so the leak would have been apparent to the operator long before any oil reaches the surface.  In response to criticism of their silence, the Department of Health stated that while companies are legally required to notify the state of any spills, the state is in turn under no obligation to pass that information onto the public.

This caught the attention of citizens of North Dakota, where agriculture is still big business and generations of politicians have pointed to family farms like Jensen’s as the foundation of the state. Until recently, corporate farms weren’t allowed in North Dakota, and family farms still make up a larger proportion of agriculture than elsewhere.

Politics here always comes back to the earth. This makes itself felt in the landscape: driving west on I-94 in North Dakota, we passed fields of wheat and corn, sunflowers and pasture. On clear days the gold of wheat fields stretches to meet the brilliant azure of the open prairie skies. These bountiful plots far outnumber the pumpjacks of the oil industry, which toil here and there, tucked at the edge of a field. Like horses bowing their heads to graze, the steel “horseheads” at the end of pumpjack “walking beams” nod up and down, their hammerhead “cranks” inscribing slow orbits day and night, pulling oil from far below the ground.

If it weren’t for pumpjacks and drilling rigs, the bright green of John Deere combines and white of Ford F-250 pickups parked in front of tidy frame farmhouses, the scene would be much the same as it was in the 1870s, when the Homestead Act made land on the Great Plains available to anyone willing to work it. This opportunity attracted settlers from far and wide who sold any property that couldn’t fit onto a wagon and headed westward in the hopes of securing a bit of land to call their own.

In comparison to the lush tallgrass prairies east of the Mississippi, the short grass of the western plains must have seemed disappointing. The land here is subject to drought and soil erosion and the temperature swings between sweltering summers and frigid winters.

But the settlers made a go of it. Lacking wood on the treeless prairies, they built sod homes from the earth itself. They planted crops and raised livestock, sunk wells and built windmills. They sheltered in these houses against howling winter winds that froze elk solid. They lived through years of lean and years of plenty. Some grew rich on the bounty of the land and built sturdy frame houses, which stand today on farms tilled by their descendants.

This story has played a central role in American myths about the foundation of the country, and has honed something resembling that legendary virtue of self-reliance which looms so large in American politics.

Former North Dakota Governor Art A. Link embodied this narrative of self-reliance. He started his life on a family farm in western North Dakota, and never took easily to the glad-handing of politics. His friends describe him as sincere and plainspoken. When North Dakota stood on the brink of a coal boom in the 1970s, Link famously declared that he had “no intention of allowing North Dakota to become a ‘sacrifice area’ to run television sets on the East and West coasts.” Instead, he expressed the hope that after the boom, “the land would be restored to its original state, covered over with grass or grain, as good as or better than before.”

This speech is invoked by people on all sides of the debate about recent oil development. A printed excerpt is framed in the office of Alison Ritter, at the Oil and Gas division of the North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC), along with pictures of her children. She says that she has made North Dakota her home, and that a desire to preserve the land for the benefit of her children motivates her work with the Oil and Gas Commission.

A%20excerpt%20of%20former%20ND%20Governor%20Art%20Link's%20speech%20in%20Ritter's%20officeAn excerpt from former North Dakota Governor's Art Links

Ritter, speaking on behalf of the North Dakota state government, emphasizes that steps are in place to minimize the damage that oil and gas wells can cause, and that the NDIC has inspectors working in the field to make sure that oil sites are operating in accordance with the law.  She describes firm consequences for violations: “We have a three strikes and you’re out program. You get a field warning, [then] a written warning, and if need be it rises to the level of a complaint.”

“There is a hands-off approach to regulating a lot of industries in the state. North Dakotans like to boast that they are industry friendly,” she says. Her feeling is that “you need to give business the ability to operate, and not put so many rules and regulations on them that they can’t function.”

Accidental Environmentalists

Some still feel that not enough has been done to regulate oil development. Concerned citizens don’t have to reach to find issues. They can point to fracking “filter socks” illegally dumped in open fields, spreading hazardous radioactivity. Stories of oil spills also abound. Many of them are small and contained by the safety measures required by law, but others, like the one on Jensen’s farm, seep huge amounts of crude into the land and water.

Don Morrison at the Dakota Resource Council (DRC) wants to prevent spills like these from spoiling the natural inheritances of North Dakotans. He ushers us into his office, and under a photo of Lake Sakakawea, a bright blue reservoir nestled among stony hills, he sets out his mission.

He represents a diverse group of ranchers and farmers interested in protecting their livelihoods from the potential environmental degradations of the oil industry. Some even work in the oil industry or related fields. He emphasizes that the DRC isn’t opposed to fossil fuels, but wants to ensure that while oil development proceeds, “we do not destroy the place in the process.”

Morrison speaks animatedly, and his face is quick to break into a broad smile beneath wire frame glasses and a bristly moustache. He draws a sharp contrast between environmentalists in North Dakota and stereotypes about environmentalists elsewhere. We’re miles away from the crunchy-granola liberalism of organizations like Greenpeace. The DRC’s pamphlets are more likely to feature a picture of a beef steer than a polar bear.

He knows to distinguish his work from that of other environmental groups from bitter experience. At the beginning of the boom, Morrison recalls, anyone who raised concerns about the potential effects of the development was “branded immediately as some kind of radical environmentalist who was out there to stop all fossil fuels in the world.” This, he argues, “was a tactic to make sure they could go as fast as they could without any controls.”

This is a potent accusation. In Morrison’s words: “there are very few people who are environmentalists in North Dakota, and they would live in places like Fargo or Grand Forks, and maybe Bismark.”

But in many ways, North Dakotans are more connected to the earth than environmentalists in places like New York City or Chicago. Out here, Morrison explains, “you have farmers and ranchers who have for generations farmed the land, or Native Americans, who know the land and appreciate it incredibly, and these folks know that if they do things that destroy the land or water, they’re destroying their investment.”

Once the Dakota Resource Council started “working on something that actually brings people together to protect their farms and ranches from, say, a very wrongly sited place for a radioactive waste dump, and they’re fighting to protect their livelihoods and they’re being called environmentalists they start scratching their heads. Finally, when it’s all over, they go, ‘Well fine, if you call me environmentalist, I guess I’m environmentalist, but you know, if you destroy my land, you destroy my business.’”

The Fine Print

Many in Western North Dakota initially welcomed the boom, a windfall which came after many years of swings in the fickle commodity prices and weather that govern the lives of those that live off the land. But as it went on, they started to see the downside. Mile-long traffic jams kept them from going to town to pick up feed. Dust kicked up by trucks carrying rig parts settled on ears of sweet corn. Grain spoiled in the silo as freight trains were diverted to carry away crude.

The boom caused more than just these inconveniences. One family was driven from their house seven times after the flare which burned off excess natural gas from the well on their land went out. This left the deadly gas to blow directly towards their home, forcing them to evacuate their house and barn, their heads swimming with gas intoxication. Headaches still pounding in their ears, they called the company and then the government to complain, but saw no resolution to the problem. Morrison summed up the state’s response: “The flare’s on now, so what’s the problem?”

Such stories are common. The state department of health and other agencies that are tasked with protecting people's health and welfare tend to deliver a rote response: “we can’t deal with that right now, we’re overwhelmed, we don’t have enough staff.”

This is not a fault of the agencies, Morrison argues, but an inevitable consequence of North Dakota’s business-friendly policy. “From the top levels,” he says, “the state employees, some really good folks, knew the bottom line was ‘you do not cross the oil industry.’” The boom was sold as “our ticket to making lots of money, turning our economy around.” The result on the ground was that “there was nobody in state government that could actually help these farmers and ranchers that were dealing with this totally out-of-control flaring.”

Up in Smoke

A%20gas%20flare%20burns%20by%20a%20rigA gas flare burns by a rig

“Out-of-control flaring” is hardly an exaggeration. On average, 1 to 5 percent of the gas from gas extraction is burned off rather than shipped to market. But in North Dakota, Morrison says, the number got as high as 36 percent. At the height of the boom, producers burned off much of the gas associated with oil finds in order to begin producing crude. Their rationale was simple: oil was many times more valuable.

The infrastructure to capture and process the gas for use in heating, power generation, and for export, was not put in place before the boom. An industry representative, speaking to the Gate, argued that drillers couldn’t put the right amount of infrastructure in place until they found out how much gas the field would produce.

North Dakota state senator Tim Mathern (D-Fargo), speaking to the Gate, felt differently. He looks at the failure to construct gas pipelines and processing plants as a missed opportunity: “We’ve burned off enough energy that we could have lit up all of Chicago, paid for all your energy, [but now] that’s all burnt up, and it’s all part of the pollution in America.” Natural gas plants have begun to come online, something Mathern welcomes, but he still feels that the state would have been better off if those plants had been built at the start of the boom.

Mathern sees an explanation for flaring practices in the bottom lines of companies: “Essentially, there’s a hole in the ground with a $100 bill. If there’s a $20 bill in the way, well, burn it.”

The government has recently moved to address flaring. In 2014, the NDIC instituted new requirements to ensure that the majority of gas is captured: 77 percent in 2015 and 90-95 percent by 2020. But these requirements might be meaningless if there are not enough plants to process the captured gas for sale.

Gas infrastructure is still being built despite the bust. So-called “midstream” companies, which deal with everything between the well pad and the oil and gas refineries, don’t require the massive capital needed to undertake drilling operations or construct multi-million dollar gas processing plants. Gas has also become more valuable due to the downturn in oil prices: as companies tighten their belts and seek to extract any revenue possible, the revenue from natural gas helps them to stay afloat. They have also moved production to the “core counties” surrounding Williston, where pipes and plants are already in place.

All of these factors have kept pipeline construction moving and prevented the waste from flaring. These pipelines face right-of-way issues, however, not to mention the looming lack of processing capabilities. For the time being though, more gas is getting to market. According to figures provided by the NDIC, 89 percent of produced gas is captured, in part due to the Lonesome Creek plant that came online at the end of 2015. The state is awaiting the completion of two more plants in Bear Creek and Wild Basin. North Dakota currently has a processing capacity of 2 billion cubic feet of gas processing, compared to 1.7 Bcf of gas produced.

The slowdown has meant that infrastructure has started to catch up with the gas extracted in the field, and flaring has been reduced. Even so, flares still abound. At night, the starry sky in Western North Dakota glows an eerie orange from the light of hundreds of massive flames. These are an obvious source of air pollution, but there are other, more insidious contaminants.

The ‘Dirty Laundry’ of Fracking

Fracking involves forcing saltwater at high pressure into underground shale, ‘fracturing’ it and displacing oil, which is then collected at the surface. It also displaces other substances in the rock, including radioactive materials that occur naturally throughout the earth’s crust. This is why disposing of used fracking fluid properly is so important, and why spills of otherwise non-toxic saltwater cause such concern. As the brine comes back to the surface, it is filtered through massive “socks” which catch any solid particulate matter, including radioactive rock. Once they are replaced, their contents emit hazardous levels of radiation for many years.

Transporting and disposing of these socks requires special facilities, all of which comes at a hefty price tag. Oil companies knew they would face this issue. “They knew they had to take it to Idaho or Colorado,” says Morrison. Despite this, he alleges, “they didn’t put it in their business plans.”

It’s not certain that this was a matter of planned neglect on the part of oil companies, but it is clear what happened on the ground. Rather than dispose of filter socks properly, operators came up with a simpler solution: dump them.

“They were discarded illegally all over the place in western North Dakota, in fields and back alleys, where kids play . . .” Morrison says regretfully. The DRC’s request to the Department of Health was straight to the point: “track it, figure it out, do something about it.”

Municipal waste sites were aware of the danger, and turned away the socks, but the state refused to track these rejected socks after they left the dumps. Some were disposed of properly, but others were tucked away wherever their owners thought they wouldn't be discovered.

Piles of abandoned filter socks were discovered throughout the state, making headlines. As these reports and public outrage accumulated, action was taken. In Morrison’s telling, “[the government’s] first action is always to make it more lax, more lenient, so they raised the level of [allowable] radioactivity from 5 picocuries per gram to 50 picocuries per gram,” meaning that municipal waste sites could accept socks.

The result of this, according to Morrison, was that the people that live near these sites saw “their cows and calves die in the spring because of the runoff of these waste sites”.

This change to the radiation limits was made without public input. Industry representatives, faced with the cost of transporting filter socks, had gone to the state Department of Health to try and get them to raise the level of radioactivity allowed. The DRC found out about this, and a DRC member who had experience in open government began to attend these meetings over the protests of officials.

This member, whom Morrison did not name, observed that the oil companies were “educating the state Health Department officials about this issue without anybody else close by.” The DRC arranged public meetings to discuss the problem.

Before long, citizens in the Bakken began to report illegal dumping or spills to the Department of Health, something that “became very annoying to the Department because they didn't have any kind of mechanism to deal with it.”

The meeting also resulted in a plan to use Department of Health data to create of a map of spills, which state employees began work on. However, shortly afterward, this effort was quashed by the governor's office, perhaps because, as Morrison suggests, it “would show way too much damage going on.”

Then the spill on Steve Jensen’s land was revealed, along with the subsequent cover-up. The first instinct of public officials, Morrison said, had been to make sure the oil industry didn’t look bad, and when this was revealed, it undermined trust in the industry and state alike.

Spills like the one on Steve Jensen’s farm are rare, but when they do happen, the consequences for landowners can be disastrous, and leave them with little recourse. Jensen’s misfortune did have one positive effect for the state: it created a gap in the “brick wall” protecting the oil industry. The state released data which an independent cartographer compiled a map that depicts spills, as originally planned at the public meeting held by the DRC.

Alison Ritter confirmed that policies governing disclosure had been changed as a response to public outrage in the wake of the spill on the Jensen farm. The NDIC and the Department of Health “listened to that criticism” and agreed that there should be more notification. They promptly created a website listing spills. At the time of the Jensen farm spill, such a website had been a “public mechanism that had been discussed, but not enacted.” In addition to listing all spills on the website, the Department of Health now puts out a press release for spills greater than 150 barrels, a policy meant to answer criticism of their silence after the Jensen spill.

Morrison attributes these changes to organized and concerned citizens, but thinks these efforts would have had few results if it hadn’t been for a publicized disaster. He argues that this has often been the case with the NDIC and other government bodies. For her part, Alison Ritter at the NDIC said that the government welcomes public comment, as long as it “provides substance” and not just criticism. Whether the oil companies feel the same way is open to speculation.

Ritter contests the notion that the NDIC is excessively reluctant to intervene. While the commission is proud and vocal about its business-friendly attitude, she also emphasizes that in instances where industry has failed to self-regulate, the government has taken action. When the problem of filter sock dumping first came to light, she says, the NDIC asked “industry to step up and deal with the problem.” But as it became increasingly clear that the problem wasn’t going away, she says, the NDIC “proactively stepped in.” They created a new regulation which required every well site to install a labeled, leak-proof container for filter socks, and the state worked to make sure that these socks were disposed of after use.

Ritter reiterated several times that North Dakota has the best “inspector-to-well ratio in the country” and says that the state legislature has promptly answered requests for additional inspectors. The slowdown in drilling has also meant that rig inspectors can shift to inspect wells. She feels that the number of inspectors is sufficient today: in the fourth quarter of 2015, “95 percent of violations found in the field were resolved within the first thirty to eighty days”, meaning they were discovered by an inspector and promptly corrected by the industry operator.

As for the remaining 5 percent? They are largely a result of operator noncompliance: there were six cases in which the site operator failed to correct a problem and received a formal “complaint” which comes along with a $12,500 per day fine, reduced if the company has no further violations for a year. Ritter emphasizes that the state has seen a 0 percent recidivism rate since 2011.

She acknowledges that this record of responsive inspection might not hold at the Department of Health, which has fewer inspectors. If a spill leaves the well site and enters nearby streams and fields, the Department of Health takes up jurisdiction for monitoring the spill.

It’s also worth noting that the number of active rigs and sites requiring inspection was much higher during the boom. Spills are more likely to occur during the drilling process than during continued production, and also more likely to slip through the cracks.

The Human Cost

While Morrison and his allies are making slow progress in the effort to contain fracking’s environmental costs, it’s not just the earth that bears scars from the boom. Speaking to the Gate, Senator Connie Triplett laid out the consequences of the boom in stark terms:

“...Truly every person in North Dakota has a relative, or a friend, or knows someone, who was killed in a car accident because of increased traffic on roads that were not designed to handle that amount of traffic.  If people had been asked at the beginning of this oil boom would you give up one of your nieces or nephews to this oil boom?  Is it worth it to you to know that one member of your extended family is going to die in order to have this oil boom, people might have thought a little differently about it.”

People, she argues, didn’t know “what the price was going to be in terms of disruption of lifestyle and safety.  If people had believed that this oil boom was going to bring murderers and prostitutes and drug dealers, big time drug dealers to Western North Dakota they might have thought a little differently about it.  But I think the people in Western North Dakota and all of North Dakota were pretty naive about what was going to happen, and then once it got started, it was a roller coaster, it was not to be stopped.”

A%20tanker%20goes%20down%20a%20highway%20in%20th%20emiddle%20of%20North%20Dakota's%20oil%20country A tanker goes down a highway in the middle of North Dakota’s oil country

Calculations made before the boom, she argues “were out of ignorance or naïveté about what the consequences were going to be”, and if citizens had known then what they know now “A more controlled oil development might have been preferable.”

Many are reluctant to entertain such exercises in hindsight, since few of these consequences could have been reliably predicted by politicians, officials, or ordinary citizens. Still, there is one group that Triplett feels knew exactly what to expect: the oil companies. “The Bakken oil field is an incredibly good oil field, and they’re not exploring for oil, they’re mining for oil. And they knew when they came in that they were doing that, the oil companies knew because they had done their homework."

Mathern expressed a similar sentiment: “They know the science. They have the engineers. They have the expertise. They’re pushing the product as fast as they can to take advantage of the profit.”

The Rush

The frantic pace of early drilling was no accident, Morrison argues, it was corporate policy. “I think if you go to places like Wyoming or Texas or Alaska or Oklahoma where the oil industry has come in, [it’s clear that] this is following a pattern. Go as fast as you can, get as much as you can get out of it, then ask the populace to pick up the tab for everything the oil industry has done.”

The incentives that drive companies to exploit as much as they can, as quickly as they can are quantifiable: oil companies bought leases at the beginning of the boom, when, as Morrison says, “these leases went for fifty to one hundred dollars an acre. So if you had one thousand acres that’s like $5,000, $10,000. They now would go from $2,000 to $5,000 an acre. [If you have a thousand acres,] that’s in the millions.” To prevent oil companies from having to pay out higher sums, he adds, “the North Dakota state government said, ‘we have to approve all the drilling permits as fast as we possibly can.’”

The law gives oil companies one year to start producing oil after drilling to total depth. If they can’t, the state steps in, and companies must start producing, place an additional bond on the well, temporarily abandon it, or plug and abandon it entirely. Because of the low price of oil, the NDIC has been lenient, letting operators designate wells as “inactive” rather than demanding they begin production or abandon and pay the cost of plugging wells. In many cases the wells have been drilled, but not yet fractured, as to do so is an expensive process which might not be viable at current prices. However, this delayed action disadvantages mineral rights owners, who don’t receive royalties from oil production and are denied the opportunity to renegotiate with another oil company.

As the boom progressed, the buildup in infrastructure lowered the cost of bringing oil to market, and economies of scale began to factor into production, making Bakken wells, and the mineral rights that controlled them increasingly valuable assets. In order to ensure they didn’t have to pay higher prices, companies had an incentive to drill to the required depth and begin production as fast as possible, which they did, heedless of the human and environmental costs.

This is not due to malevolence, but the profit motive: companies need to maximize profits for their shareholders, and aren’t necessarily concerned with protecting the intangible heritage, economic wellbeing, or health of North Dakotans.

Alison Ritter agreed that the frantic pace of development was driven by the desire to start production as soon as possible. However, she emphasized that there was nothing that the NDIC could have done to slow the pace. Her answer to the argument that the NDIC should have limited the number of drilling permits is simple: that would be a violation of the North Dakota state constitution, which prohibits the government from interfering with private contracts. If a drilling permit meets the NDIC’s specifications, she says, the NDIC is obligated to approve it.

“Every form of energy has a footprint,” she points out, reiterating that the NDIC strives to strike a balance between industry and conservation.

Of course, this doesn’t prevent the state from enacting more stringent permit requirements, but industry representatives already feel that North Dakota’s regulations are excessive. The NDIC has made changes changes to nearly seventy sections of code, and created “energy corridors” where oil producers work with government and research institutions to improve production. They have instituted statewide controls on flaring, and have recently extended their jurisdiction to underground gathering pipes, the local pipelines that are used in producing oil.

Ritter emphasizes that regulations have sought a middle ground: “There certainly is a fine line to walk when it comes to regulations and relationships, trying to figure out how an industry can best function without infringing on its progress. We want to try and strike that balance.”

Tipping the Scales

But the size, wealth, and importance of the oil industry creates an imbalance in and of itself. As we discussed in the third article in this series, the political culture of North Dakota gives industry lobbyists an outsized voice in the state, and legislators often turn to industry bodies for information about proposed laws.

Individuals who owned the mineral rights could do little to influence oil companies once the rights were sold. The lease prices they received at the start of the boom no longer reflect market values, but the terms of the lease give them very little recourse. The state government offered little in the way of legal counsel at the start of the boom, and although landowners could hire a private lawyer Morrison points out that “many of the lawyers were already working for the oil companies.”

In cases where the mineral rights were held separately from the surface rights, surface owners had no rights whatsoever.

Some landowners returned from a trip to town and found a well staked out on their property. The head of the NDIC, Lynn Helms, says that regulations have been changed in response to such complaints, now requiring that companies give written notice before surveying, and that they allow the landowner to accompany them and have some say in where the well will be placed.

But landowners who disagree with the company's preferred location can do little, says Morrison. The DRC has members who fought the placement of a pipeline on their land, or who asked the companies to take a different route. Because of eminent domain, and the legal resources of oil companies, these battles are rarely successful.

One rancher saw that a planned well pad would obstruct the path of his cattle from one pasture to another. He tried to get the company to relocate the well so he could have continued use of his pasture, without success. This left him with the prospect of driving his cattle over a five-mile route, on roads filled with trucks and heavy machinery. “He can’t use that pasture any more,” Morrison says.

Even mineral owners who have received oil money are feeling cheated. This manifests itself in disputes over royalties. When a well stops producing, the oil company is responsible for plugging the well and returning the land to its previous state. However, as long as a well is in continuous production, they don’t have to plug it, or give up the mineral rights. As a result, Morrison alleges, the companies claim continued production on dry wells, or “cheat, by putting oil from another well into that well. There’s no way to check, there’s no accountability, and the oil company can do that.”

Alison Ritter had never heard of such allegations, and reiterated that quarterly inspections would have discovered a well that had gone dry. She declined to comment on the possibility of an oil company refilling a dry well, except to say that she had never heard of that practice.

But in at least one case, oil company practices have been ruled illegal. Greg Tank and his family have faced off with the oil company in two prior oil booms. His list of complaints stretches on for pages. Oil companies have damaged his land, in one case abandoning a well after it stopped producing. His water has become undrinkable. Promised royalties were slow in coming, and lighter than expected. The producer claimed continuous production on a well that had long since gone dry, retaining the lease. Tank sued the company that he had contracted with, and the Supreme Court ruled in his favor. He hasn’t yet seen a dime: “the oil company is appealing and appealing and appealing, they have unlimited resources to just appeal”.

Past Legacies

The legacy of past booms in North Dakota has cast a shadow over the current one.

Driving on Highway 83, which slices through North Dakota’s coal country, we passed coal fields which were never seeded over, inky black scars on the land, an obvious legacy of machines which have long since fallen silent. This is the legacy of the coal boom that motivated Art Link to make his famous speech. Then as now, progress sometimes outstripped the ability of legislators, officials, and citizens, to manage its course.

According to Morrison, the coal companies sought to strip-mine for coal, and to build sixty-seven coal-fired generating plants in the state. After facing popular opposition, Morrison continues, power companies reduced the scope of these plans: they built eight. This was due, he argues, to citizens and officials who demanded that the process be managed. “There was a reasonableness that happened,” he says.

The DRC was founded in 1978 to oppose coal strip mining, and saw its greatest successes in that arena. Aided by a sympathetic government, it pushed for the reclamation laws that have limited the amount of unreclaimed coal mines blighting the land. Still, even in this favorable political atmosphere, the coal boom left negative legacies that remain to this day.

The recent oil boom is something else altogether. Rather than seeking to manage development, the legislature has mostly pushed for more and faster development. This is, perhaps, an understandable drive in the depths of a major recession. But in the scramble to attract the oil industry, it failed to consider how to control the development once it came.

Senator Tim Mathern is sobered when he considers the damage done by this boom, comparing it to the very worst damage done by the coal boom: “There’s just as much damage. It’s chemicals, it’s destruction of the soil, it’s destruction of wetlands and waterways. It’s just less easy to recognize than a hill that was displaced and never reclaimed.” Mathern is clear about the stakes: “if we don’t do a better job we will literally have an industrial wasteland in northwest Dakota”

His response to claims that North Dakota’s regulations are the toughest in the nation is simple: “they’re claims.” Even if these regulations are the toughest, he continues, they don’t go far enough.

“There are spills from two years ago that are still not monitored, [and] there’s not enough staff to follow up on all of these,” he says gruffly. He worries that these inspections are so delayed that by the time spill sites are examined, “the damage is gone, buried deep into the earth.” In Mathern’s mind, the cause of this state of affairs is simple. “The citizens are not electing people that are demanding environmental controls, and that will have long term consequences.”

North Dakota’s laws do, in fact, address concerns about land reclamation for the Bakken boom. But it remains to be seen whether these laws will be followed once the fields pinch out, particularly at a time when companies are struggling to stay afloat.

Senator Mathern sees the cost of the boom in stark terms. “We have lost ground, we have lost income. We have lost part of our legacy. We have created damage to our environment.”

Don Morrison concludes that the citizens “living and trying to make a living in North Dakota, some for ten thousand years, and others for five or six generations on ranches, were collateral damage” of the boom. Oil companies had no interest in developing the field “in a way that would have people come to North Dakota, bring their families, build our communities, be in our schools”.

Indeed, intensive drilling required exactly the opposite community development: attracting people willing to undertake the physically taxing and dangerous work of being a roughneck. Most of these people were men, often single, with no intention of making the state their home. This is just as well from the industry's perspective, since these jobs disappear as soon as the rigs stop drilling.

The Calm

The drilling companies have moved on. The rigs are coming down. There are only thirty left in the entire state, a far cry from two years ago when there were 189. Workers who, like Jeremiah Barr, a welder, came to North Dakota to find oil gigs, are now working six-figure jobs for wind turbine companies instead. Transient workers chasing quick, fat paychecks are gone, leaving deserted houses and storefronts in their wake. Small business owners like David VanAssche are pivoting their business strategies. Schools aren’t overflowing anymore, and the jobs office is humming but peaceful. In many ways, the Bakken doesn’t feel like such an out-of-the-ordinary place anymore—apart from the pumpjacks, a drive through the fields is much like a drive through Montana, Iowa, or South Dakota. The legendary traffic has gone, leaving empty new highways.

Active Rigs in North Dakota, 2012-2016

North Dakota is taking stock.

Many of the people we interviewed spoke of the slowdown as a time for reflection and redirection. After the heady days of the boom, policies are slowly shifting. New laws and regulations are taking force. Spills are being cleaned up and pipelines are being built. Hiring isn’t so frantic anymore. Workers are being vetted and receiving advanced training.

But in many ways, the sudden departure of the boom left more questions than answers in its wake.

How will the oil money change the state? What will the boom towns, and the business owners that flocked to them, do now that so many fortune seekers have moved on to other opportunities? What are the lasting environmental and health consequences of the vast spills and the constant flaring? Will the newly instituted regulations on gas flares, filter socks, and oil treatment prevent further environmental destruction? Will the influx of lobbyists and campaign money change the political culture of the state? Will Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela, Iran or any other competing oil producer back down, and lower production?

The unspoken question that underlies all these concerns is not whether the boom will return, but when.

The Bakken field remains rich, with large areas still untapped. Even with the meteoric rise of alternative energy, like wind and solar, in the state, there will continue to be a market for Bakken oil for the foreseeable future. The question is how the state will manage development going forward, and whether this slower development is a temporary lull in the chaos or the new normal.

One thing is clear: the effects of this boom will carry on long after the last pumpjack falls still. For better and for worse, the Bakken Play has changed North Dakota. North Dakota’s citizens are taking this time to look back on the legacy of the boom, and to look forward into a future that remains unwritten.


Dake Kang and Sean Maher


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