There Will Be Oil

By Edwin Dobb

Featured in the Winter 2013 "Progress" issue of Camas: The Nature of the West

     One warm afternoon two summers ago, I stood on a steep eroded bluff overlooking the Missouri River, southwest of New Town, North Dakota, on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Two historic preservation officers from the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation—Elgin Crows Breast and Calvin Grinnell—were showing me a place they had long searched for and recently found, the very spot where, in the mid-1830s, George Catlin painted the panoramic landscape he titled “Big Bend on the Upper Missouri above St. Louis.” At Catlin’s Point, their name for the promontory, clues to the history of the region came into view, clues that also say much about an ancient but ever-more effective and increasingly pervasive enterprise of Homo sapiens—remaking the given world.

        Along the river bottom the Mandan, a sedentary tribe, grew several varieties of maize that they traded with their neighbors. In other words, well before Lewis & Clark passed through the region, the indigenous people worked the land and coaxed it to do their bidding, though in a gentle manner. They were small-scale farmers. But their modest way of life was no match for the European-American juggernaut, with its weapons and diseases, machines and manifest disruption, which eventually included bending to human purpose the power of the river itself. About 75 miles downstream from Catlin’s Point is Garrison Dam, constructed in the late 1940s and early 1950s chiefly to produce electricity. By 1953, the resultant lake—called Sakakawea—had flooded 155,000 acres of tribal land, while also entombing several sacred sites and nine small towns, one not far from where Crows Breast, Grinnell, and I were standing. Over time, as the water rose, some 1,700 people abandoned their homes and fled to higher ground, establishing a community they christened New Town.

        Following the doomed practice of assigning a dollar value to things whose worth can’t be measured in monetary terms alone, the U.S. government offered the three affiliated tribes about $5 million, or $33 per acre, to compensate for their loss. The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara protested, eventually convincing Congress to increase the amount to $12.5 million, still far short of the land’s appraised value at the time. But the three affiliated tribes, which had joined together when they were on the verge of being erased from the prairie altogether, lost more than treaty territory. According to the final settlement, they were prohibited from grazing, hunting, and fishing along the new shoreline. They couldn’t draw water from the lake for irrigation projects. And they no longer owned the subsurface mineral rights within the reservoir area.

        After saying goodbye to Crows Breast and Grinnell, I visited Marilyn Hudson, administrator of the Three Tribes Museum, in New Town. “We’re making the best of a bad situation,” she said. The 79-year-old former BIA official had in mind the effects of unchecked oil development on the reservation during the past few years, but the comment conjured up a litany of unhappy historical “situations,” the most personal and most painful being the day when she, a senior in high school, and her family were forced to abandon their home in Elbowoods, nestled next to the Missouri, one of the villages condemned to eerie repose at the bottom of the lake. Fort Berthold has been inundated again, Hudson believes, this time by industry.

        “Tribal leaders weren’t prepared,” she said. “Nor was the BIA.” The only ones who knew “where they were going”—as she put it—were oil interests, which, several years ago, used dummy companies to lease most of the available mineral rights at discount prices. Hudson has argued for prohibiting or limiting drilling on certain parts of the reservation. Her pleas have been in vain. “The tribe has no oil industry experts,” Hudson explained, “no economists, no geologists, no civil engineers, no technicians, no one with the right kind of business experience, no mechanisms for regulation or monitoring.” Fearful that a singular opportunity will be squandered, she and other members of the Indian General Council proposed that the lease fees and oil revenue the affiliated tribes receive be placed in a trust fund and not touched until a comprehensive, long-range development plan is approved. Among other things, Hudson wants to make sure the income is used to cultivate Indian education, Indian expertise, and Indian-owned and operated enterprises, in effect creating an economic renaissance that would bring prosperity to everyone on the reservation. The general council adopted the resolution, then sent it to the tribal leadership for consideration. “Nothing happened,” Hudson said. That was several years ago.

      Of everything that’s taking place today in the oil patch, what will last? Will the enduring things be the most desirable things? These questions haunt Don Kalil, chairman of the Williams County Board of Commissioners. “Oil is a rental business,” Kalil says, meaning, it doesn’t stay in one place, doesn’t owe its allegiance to a specific set of local circumstances, like, say, farming and ranching, which Kalil’s family has been doing west of Williston, the county seat, for more than a hundred years. Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the contrast than the two most iconic structures on the prairie today—the itinerant drill rig and the steadfast grain silo. “When the industry goes south, and it will go south,” Kalil says, “they just walk away.”

        Kalil explained his concerns while he worked on a barbed wire fence on land he leases from the state as summer pasture for his red angus cattle. A pipeline company had damaged the fence but failed, in Kalil’s eyes, to repair it properly, which he couldn’t help but take as emblematic of the larger transformation under way in Williams County. He doesn’t oppose development, only development run amok, which is how he sees the boom. “Slow it down,” Kalil argues. Contain it before it destroys the closely bound communities and easygoing lifestyle that during good times have been the hallmarks of the region. Even if that were still possible—and Kalil has all but lost hope—the only effective way would be to limit the number of drill rigs or well permits, and state officials have no wish to do either. Quite the opposite. 

        “It breaks my heart,” Kalil said while pulling another strand taut.

        Slow down. If you put your ear to the ground, you can’t go far or long in the oil patch without hearing some version of that sentiment, including from people who were enthusiastic supporters of the boom, and support it still, and are making money because of it, but didn’t realize they had invited a tsunami into their lives. North Dakotans are no strangers to the here now-gone tomorrow nature of oil booms, having experienced one in the 1950s, then another in the 1980s. But the scale, ferocity, and speed of the current frenzy found them unprepared. And they’ve experienced only the first stage of the invasion. The industry, as measured by number of wells, is expected to increase fivefold during the next ten to 20 years.

        It’s also easy to imagine slow down as a historical refrain, a counter-chorus to every rush that’s swept through North Dakota. To the waves of settlers who arrived in the 19th century, nearly decimating the indigenous people: Slow down. To the mechanization of agriculture that took place in the first half of the 20th century, cutting the number of farms from 80,000 to 30,000: Slow down. To the conversion of the Missouri from a free-flowing river into an immense energy generator that extends almost to the Montana border: Slow down.

        But voluntarily imposing limits doesn’t come easy to our kind, if it comes at all, even when we know it’s the smart thing to do, the mature thing to do, even while we tell our children fairy tales about the virtue of doing so. Nor is restraint likely to prevail this time around. Lynn Helms, director of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, has said repeatedly he wants to drill and hydraulically fracture every square mile of the oil patch. Despite assurances that public lands will be protected, industry is now active along the borders of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and it’s encroaching upon the Little Missouri National Grasslands. “The badlands are not just a picture postcard,” says Clay Jenkinsen, director of The Dakota Institute and one of the few public figures in the state willing to question the boom openly. “They are an experience.” And that experience is now on course to be degraded beyond recognition. In the absence of mandatory setbacks and other regulations, western North Dakota’s last wild places will become little more than remnants in a patchwork of noise, traffic, dust, methane fumes, and light pollution. Gone will be the area’s signature features—silence, solitude, serenity. Gone the understated glory of the prairie.

        Especially telling, in my view, is the deliberate waste in the oil patch. Last year alone, North Dakota squandered $1 billion worth of natural gas—via flaring. That’s the carbon emissions equivalent of putting one million new cars on the road. To be sure, the industry would rather recover the gas. And it must be acknowledged that factors are in play that encourage rapid, wholesale development, including uncertainty about the global market, three-year mineral rights leases on private land, and the possibility the EPA could impose tighter restrictions, or worse, call for a moratorium on fracking. But did anyone in charge even consider delaying drilling until enough infrastructure had been built? And wouldn’t old-fashioned prudence dictate testing new drilling, fracking, and wastewater disposal strategies on a small scale before applying them everywhere, all at once, as fast as possible? If these questions seem naïve, I would argue they do so only because of the dominant ideology, which is based on technological determinism and the systematic postponement of full accountability. As a result, a massive experiment is under way, the lasting consequences of which won’t be evident until it’s too late to do much about them. “This is a full-scale mining operation,” says Brent Sanford, the young, enthusiastic mayor of Watford City, a small community in McKenzie County that prior to the boom had started to look like the dying town in the film The Last Picture Show. “Now we can get back to work,” Sanford says.

      The day I drove to the Jorgenson place, in the northwest corner of Mountrail County, was the day I fell under the spell of the prairie. North of Tioga I turned off Route 40, heading east. On both sides of the gravel road fields of wheat, alfalfa, and sunflowers spread to the horizon. In this part of the country, if you’re not in a hurry, you can’t help but notice the sound—that there’s so little of it, for one thing, and that it’s mostly orchestrated by the wind, which is almost always present, howling, thrumming, or, as happened that morning, whispering, as it sifted through the still-green crops. I continued for eight miles along a road without bends in a land without contours, none of which prepared me for my destination—the White Earth Valley, a wide grassy basin whose subtle charm owes much to the flatness of the area surrounding it. Here, on a bench above the valley, Richard and Brenda Jorgenson, both 59, have lived for more than 30 years.   

        While Richard drove a swather in a nearby field, cutting sweet-smelling alfalfa for cattle feed, Brenda showed me the troubles the boom has visited upon them, which also highlighted sacrifices residents throughout the region are making for the sake of oil. Brenda conducted the tour on an ATV, accompanied by two of her grandchildren, seven-year-old Ashley and five-year-old Kyle. With Ashley sitting on her grandmother’s lap and daredevil Kyle riding hands-free next to me in the back, we headed north of the house, skirting patches of virgin prairie, home to coneflowers, blue-eyed grass, and blanket flowers, and coulees where ash trees and Juneberry bushes were abundant.

        Brenda was still in college when Richard showed her the valley. “It was instant love,” she says. Making a go of it on the Jorgenson family property, however, has never been easy. Eight years passed before they were able to build a house, which they did themselves, moving in on Easter weekend, 1980. Like most of the landowners I met in the oil patch, Richard held a second full-time job, not retiring until 2006. Brenda worked part-time. Farming and ranching rarely provide enough income to support a family. You don’t do it unless it’s something you can’t live without. Early on Richard also handled all of the work on the land, which took a toll. “He was getting too grouchy,” Brenda says. “I told him, ‘You have to teach me how to help you.’”

        We arrived at a spot that afforded a view of the White Earth River, a narrow stream that winds through the Jorgenson’s prime farmland. The valley floor is where a company called Alliance Pipeline is constructing a 12-inch gas conduit that will connect an existing processing plant in Tioga to its main line, some 80 miles away. The Jorgensons and several of their neighbors vehemently opposed the project. “I don’t want a bomb in my backyard,” Richard says. But Alliance went to court, threatening to use eminent domain, the controversial process by which private property can be seized in the name of a larger public good, in this instance, providing energy that the U.S. demands. The morning I visited was supposed to be the last day company surveyors would traipse around the ranch, an insult in itself. “What does it mean when I say, ‘Someone’s hunting for gravel?’” Brenda asked her grandchildren, invoking the underhanded oil men in the film There Will Be Blood. “They’re snooping around,” Kyle replied. As if on cue, a hawk shrieked overhead.

        While the Jorgenson’s fight to retain control of their bottom land, they are already living with the consequences of having lost it elsewhere on the ranch. Eight hundred feet from their house a jack pump runs day and night. At least three more will be built on the spot. They didn’t want the well—the noise, traffic, damage to their land, contamination risks, methane clouds that drift their way when the flare goes out at night—but they had no say in the matter. North Dakota allows landowners to separate surface rights from mineral rights. During hard times, which have been frequent on the high plains, some have been tempted to sell or trade their mineral rights—for, say, needed equipment, like a new tractor. Richard’s father had purchased a thousand acres from someone who didn’t tell him he had sold the mineral rights—in five acre parcels—to people all over the country. Further complicating matters, the rights have since been bequeathed many times. After poring over records at the county courthouse, Brenda discovered to her horror that 110 strangers currently own the minerals beneath the 40 acres surrounding their house. If an oil company can persuade 51% of present-day mineral rights owners to agree—and given that they will make money, perhaps lots of it, without taking any risk, they usually do—it can drill on land that doesn’t belong to them.

        Perhaps prescient action on the part of the state legislature could have corrected this all-too-common arrangement, but now the minerals leasing and exploration phase is largely over in western North Dakota, giving people who don’t live and work on the land the power to dictate the fate of many who do.

        This predicament is part of a larger dynamic. Whatever benefits the oil boom yields, they will be dispersed widely. To be sure, it starts with locals, including landowners who have retained their mineral rights and are earning a great deal of money from leasing. Overnight affluence is common. But much more wealth is leaving the region. Refugees from the recession—truck drivers, construction workers, roughnecks, and other temporary workers—are paying down mortgages and other debts back in the states where they reside. Profits are flowing to oil company executives living in Canada, Texas, and Oklahoma, as well as shareholders everywhere. So, too, the resultant petroleum products will benefit people across the country and, contrary to claims about U.S. energy independence, overseas as well. The costs, by contrast, will be localized. Taking the bad with the good may be inescapable but either way the bad will be borne largely by the longstanding residents of western North Dakota. They have the most to lose. Any fair calculation of risk would make their interests paramount.     

      Before shedding tears over the industrialization of western North Dakota, however, or, even wider of the mark, casting judgment, we would do well to acknowledge our own contradictions. To research the story I wrote for National Geographic(March, 2013), I flew on a large commercial jet from San Francisco, where I currently live, to Billings, then toured the oil patch in an SUV, covering almost 4,000 miles at the rate of one gallon of gas for every 20 miles. Like most Americans, I rely on hundreds of petroleum-based products, from my eyeglasses to the computer on which I write. There but for a providential boom go I.

        Indirect culpability aside, however, not having an immediate stake in the Bakken makes it easier to recognize that a tragedy is indeed unfolding, tragedy in the classic sense—mostly well-meaning people putting forces into play that assume a life of their own, eventually exacting a price that was underestimated, ignored, or unforeseen. Everything we know about human experience tells us that, in consequential situations like this, and especially in the absence of farsighted restraint, sacrifice is all but certain and the pain won’t be allotted equally.

        Maybe the benefits of the boom will outweigh the costs. To those benefitting most, they probably will. In any case, it’s wrongheaded at best and dishonest at worst, not to mention hazardous, to pretend the oil boom is ungovernable. We are collectively choosing to take certain risks or, more common, collectively allowing others to make choices for us. Change may be inevitable. But the kind of change that takes place certainly is not. Nor is the rate. Too often what seems like destiny is the arbitrary exercise of power and privilege, proof of which is found whenever it encounters effective resistance. Think of the Nonpartisan League, the populist revolt of farmers in western North Dakota and northeastern Montana against railroad monopolies and out-of-state grain mills during the early part of the 20th century. How ironic it is that today North Dakota’s proceeds from the boom—which one oil man described to me as “capitalism on steroids”—are deposited at the Bank of North Dakota, the only such state-owned facility in the U.S., and a legacy of the socialist policies of the short-lived NPL.

        This isn’t to say more general economic, social, and cultural factors aren’t influencing events. Besides being driven by obvious motives—our ever-mounting appetite for fossil fuels, an urgent need for economic development, as well as straight-up greed, desperation, and fear—the boom satisfies a primal hunger, one that we overlook at our peril.

        We’re a restless species. We can’t sit still, can’t leave well enough alone. We need to be doing something—tinkering, rearranging, exploiting—which seems harmless enough, until you remember that seven billion people now inhabit the planet, a number that’s expected to rise to at least ten billion before it levels off, also that more and more of us desire the conveniences of urban-industrial civilization. Set aside for the moment the question of where the energy and other natural resources will come from. And set aside the matter of food security. What will keep us occupied? Probably not contemplating the beauty of the badlands or, for that matter, any other pristine landscape. We can’t all be writers, teachers, historians. As environmental historian Richard White observed in his short but profound book, The Organic Machine, “Human beings have historically known nature through work.” 

        Given that I come from a working class background, that I’m a fourth-generation descendant of Cornish tin miners and Irish copper miners, it’s probably no surprise I was impressed by what I saw at a well northeast of Williston in June of 2012. At the bottom of the vertical leg, about two miles underground, a leak had developed. To bring the pipe to the surface, a derrick-like structure, similar to a drill rig but smaller, had been erected. On a deck about 30 feet up the rig, four roughnecks were removing the entire 10,750 feet of pipe, one 32-foot, 500-pound segment at a time, a task both tedious and highly dangerous. A device underneath the deck held each segment in place as it emerged, to prevent the pressure of the oil from sending all two miles of pipe, some 84 tons of steel, rocketing into the sky. As if to remind us of that possibility, a fountain of oil suddenly burst from the hole, covering the men, their hard hats, faces, everything. The odor of gas permeated the air. More fountains followed. Just another day in the oil patch.

        Here were guys who knew what they were doing, who were exposed to constant danger, who were paid well, and who, because of all that, had ample reason to be proud. Manual labor in difficult and perilous circumstances, which in our age of high-tech jockeys and private equity sharks seemed exotic, and almost heroic. But as I gazed up at the men, their black slickers coated in sweet yellow crude, the crude turning silver in the bright sunlight, what I also saw was the existential necessity of labor. Attention must be paid to the Watford City mayor’s comment about getting back to work. Without creating a sufficient number of long-lasting, well-paying jobs, any attempt to reconcile the material and energy needs of a continually expanding urban industrial civilization with safeguarding the natural environment is doomed. Which is to say, Homo sapiens has bred and tinkered and disrupted itself into a corner, one from which there will be no easy escape. There will be blood.

      George Catlin, a Pennsylvanian whose artistic quest was sparked by an Indian delegation that visited Philadelphia, characterized his work as an attempt to document America’s—as he called it—“vanishing race.” He was mistaken about what was passing away. Though almost everywhere pushed to the brink of extinction, their ways of life destroyed, native people as such endured.

        But in Catlin’s overall enterprise—recording things as they vanish—lies a deeper and painfully familiar truth. Journalists, it has been said, write the first rough draft of history. Fair enough. But sometimes, especially regarding social and environmental issues, I also find myself writing the first draft of an elegy, an homage to something on the verge of disappearing or which has done so recently. Historians usually are further removed, waiting until long after an event has occurred or a person has died before daring to account for what happened. After the fact. It’s as if the only way we can truly comprehend what’s unfolding in front of our eyes is to view it through the lens of memory, but by then the object of our interest no longer exists. History as ghost hunting. 

        To that dilemma add self-induced blindness—the refusal to recognize what’s taking place right here, right now. While traveling through western North Dakota I sometimes felt as if I were witnessing a collective trance. Keep in mind that the Bakken is primarily an oil field. For all the controversy surrounding fracking for gas, a case can be made for gas as a bridge fuel to wind, solar, and the like, especially in China, which now burns more coal than the rest of the world combined, and whose energy appetite will continue to increase. But most of the strongest proponents of fracking for oil don’t include renewables in their vision of the future.

        Consider billionaire oilman and Bakken pioneer Harold Hamm, whose company, Continental Resources, brought in the first commercially viable horizontally drilled, hydraulically fractured well—south of Crosby, the former NPL stronghold, only nine years ago. Hamm’s view, now that we’ve found ways to exploit so-called unconventional fossil fuels, is that the carbon-based economy should continue indefinitely. He considers developing alternative sources of energy not only a waste of time but a hoax, perpetrated by anti-capitalists and corrupt scientists. And his perspective dominates the oil patch. Not once during my five weeks there did someone voluntarily utter the words “climate change,” much less acknowledge that human activity might be implicated. Hamm, I’m sure, would be pleased to hear that.

        But let’s try to break the spell, let’s try to see what’s in front of our eyes, to think clearly about it, and for a moment imagine a different approach. During one of my ride-alongs with Susan Connell, the big rig driver featured in the National Geographic story, she offered, in typically humorous and self-deprecating fashion, something she called “My Plan to Save America.”

        “We could use this oil,” she explained, “to create something new.” Like Marilyn Hudson said of drilling on the Fort Berthold Reservation, Susan sees the boom as a rare opportunity to transform the economy. Use the revenue to develop an alternative energy industry and alternative energy infrastructure. Put people to work not perpetuating the carbon economy but instead building a renewable energy economy. Meanwhile, don’t ship high-quality Bakken sweet crude overseas; use it here, as the boom boosters insist will happen, ignoring the fact that oil companies, if given the chance, will ship it wherever the global market dictates. It’s no accident that all major proposed pipelines, including the Keystone XL, terminate at the edges of the continent. 

        Would Susan’s plan save the U.S.? Maybe not. But it suggests a way to create something truly visionary in North Dakota. Recently the Williston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau unveiled a new motto—“Boomtown, U.S.A.” The bureau’s executive director explained the decision this way: “[We must]…boldly embrace who we are, what we stand for and truly define our future.” A laudable sentiment, to be sure. But the bureau’s definition of the future is impoverished, limited to 20, maybe 30 years. The possible life of the boom. That scarcely qualifies as bold thinking. There will be oil. But if we’re serious about defining our future we need to ask a different question: What will there be after oil?

        By that time, western North Dakota will have paid a heavy price. Where once silence reigned, there will be trains, semis, and jack pumps. Where once was solitude—power lines, pipe lines, and four-lane highways. Where once was serenity—refineries, railroad depots, and waste disposal sites. What would make that sacrifice worthwhile? Not to the nation as a whole. Not to the oil industry. Not to the many beneficiaries who live elsewhere. No, what would make the sacrifice worthwhile to the region itself, to the people who will have endured a radical remaking of their beloved prairie?

      Once again North Dakota is changing. Once again we’re not content to leave things as they are. Yet one constant remains—the ever-redemptive wind. Amid the commotion, the ambition and industry and frenzy of human appetite, the prairie chorus is still trying to tell us something. 

“There Will Be Oil” is a slightly modified version of the keynote address Edwin Dobb delivered at the 2013 annual conference of the Montana Historical Society, which met in Sidney, Montana, September 19-21. Portions of the address were excerpted from an article Dobb wrote for National Geographic. Titled “New Oil Landscape,” the article appeared in the March 2013 issue