Where conflicting interests must be reconciled, the question shall always be answered from the standpoint of the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.
– Gifford Pinchot, Chief Forester of the United States, 1905
Most people are on the world, not in it — have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them — undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.
– John Muir, July 1890
It was the afternoon of Friday, September 12. After our picnic at the site of Theodore Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch, the “Walden Pond of the West,” as it has been called, Sean and I were keen to continue on to the final destination of our journey through the Dakotas, the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
From the Elkhorn, we drove west up the bluffs and back into the the Little Missouri National Grassland, administered by the Forest Service under the “multiple use doctrine” advanced by Gifford Pinchot, its first chief. Pinchot also successfully advocated moving the National Forests from the Department of the Interior to the Department of Agriculture so that they could be managed as a commodity. While commercial drilling for shale oil is prohibited in National Parks, National Forests, including the Little Missouri National Grassland, are exempted from such prohibitions. Many of the oil wells encroaching on Theodore Roosevelt National Park are on land administered by the Forest Service.
The image above is both particular in that it is literally on the doorstep of Elkhorn Ranch and also generally representative of the wearily monotonous pump jacks and burn-off plumes found throughout the oil patch of the Bakken. Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the Little Missouri National Grassland that surround it sit atop a vast oil reserve known as the Bakken shale deposit for the farmer on whose land oil was first discovered in the 1950s.
The Bakken is a massive bed of rock in three layers: dark ones on top and bottom and a lighter one sandwiched between, the middle layer’s pores richly endowed with oil — light tight crude. The image of the Oreo cookie, often invoked to describe the Bakken, captures its uniformity of structure and its color scheme but fails miserably to describe the obduracy and scale of this 25,000-square-mile slab, which is in places up to one hundred feet thick. It sits two miles below the surface — mostly in western North Dakota but also extending into eastern Montana and the southern edges of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
The oil boom in the Bakken, which is about the size of West Virginia, and its impacts on the environment and the culture, the land and the people, of western North Dakota, was the subject of cover stories in both Harpers and National Geographic in March 2013. In fact, both magazines included dramatic images of the flames of natural gas burn-off rising above the prairie horizon. The articles mirror and in ways talk to each other. Together they provided a framework for thinking about the Bakken before our trip. Another cover story about the Bakken, this time in National Parks, appeared in the summer of 2014. We carried all three magazines with us in the Dakotas.
In the image below, my contribution to the dramatic gas flare photo sub-genre, a closer look at the well pad adjacent to the Elkhorn is fascinating in how it juxtaposes the technological necessity of a clean-energy solar panel with the mind-bogglingly wasteful practice of burning off natural gas.
These famous natural gas flares of the North Dakota oil boom are produced because the commodity, which is recovered as part of the crude oil extraction process, currently has prices so low that the oil companies don’t bother to capture fully one third of it for transport and sale. They simply burn it off into the North Dakota sky.
The collective light is so bright that it is easily seen from space:
After snapping some more photos, Sean and I turned away from the well and set off into the maze of Forest Service roads in the National Grassland. We wanted to avoid heading south to I-94 and going back east through Medora to highway 85 and then to the North Unit. We hoped to make our way north on the western side of the Little Missouri to approach the park. According to the Trails Illustrated map, it even looked like there would be a bridge across the river not too far north from where we were.
The challenge was apparent immediately. The Trails Illustrated map for the Park and the Grassland labeled the dirt roads by their Forest Service numerical assignments. But on the ground, the roads were indicated with proper names, such as Belle Lake Road or Beaver Creek Road. We were left to guess from the pattern of the roads and the topography of the landscape which road was which.
We drove along, passing a great many wells and cattle herds as the roads rose to the level of the prairie or dipped down between bluffs nearer the river. Finally we reached a high crossroads and were hopelessly lost. I sat in the jeep with the maps and Sean’s iPhone (which had a signal), trying to reconcile the maps to the landscape. Sean got out and stretched his legs.
Then an ancient pickup rumbled up from a dip in the landscape in front of us. It pulled alongside us. Two impossibly old ranch hands were inside. Rough, with skin deeply tanned and deeply lined.
“Hello,” I said pleasantly.
There was a long pause.
“Where you trying to go?”
“Oh we’re looking for road [some Forest Service number…who know?].”
“We don’t know the numbers of the roads.” Turning to his companion, “Do you know the numbers of the roads?”
There was a long pause.
“Where you trying to go?”
“Well,” I replied, beginning to feel foolish. “Ultimately we’re trying to get across the river without having to go all the way back to I-94.”
“Can’t do it.”
There was a long pause.
“Not this year. You can’t do it. You used to be able to do it back, when was that? O-ten?”
“Yeah, O-ten,” his companion agreed.
“Yeah back in about O-ten you could get across the river, but I wouldn’t try it now. The river’s so high. You could try it if you want, but I wouldn’t.” His eyes ran along the Jeep. “Yeah, I wouldn’t.”
“Oh. Could you direct us how to get back to I-94?”
“Yeah you turn left right here and follow the road and then keep following it along when it turns. Just keep to the right at the crossroad.”
There was a long pause.
And they drove away.
“Do you think they’re boyfriends?” Sean asked as I turned left.
It turned out that we had gone largely in a circle. Not one-hundred yards down the road we were back at the oil well and the access road for the Elkhorn. It was easy to get back to I-94 from there, although I was disappointed that we’d lost so much time and now had a couple-hour drive ahead of us to get to the North Unit. It seemed a shame to be spending so much time on such a beautiful afternoon in the car instead of on a trail.
The amount of oil in the Bakken shale is staggering:
Shortly before his death in 2000, a United States Geological Survey scientist named Leigh Price circulated a paper concluding that the Bakken was a single deposit that held 413 billion barrels of oil. Price’s methods remained contested for some years, but even conservative estimates now put the Bakken’s holdings above 100 billion barrels. (By comparison, current “proved reserves” — the known amount of oil that can be economically extracted with current technology — for the entire United States are 23 billion barrels.)
Despite the quantity of the oil in the deposit, the relative thinness of the rock layer it was found in made traditional vertical drilling ineffective at extracting more than a pittance. So things stood from the 1950s until about 2005, when the technique of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) was developed. The technique uses chemicals and abrasives such as sand (mined from such places as La Salle County, Illinois) to shatter the sandstone and shale of the Bakken layer, releasing oil. For the Bakken, the big technological advancement was the innovation to drill a second, horizontal well in the Bakken layer, allowing each well to extend two miles from the surface to the Bakken layer and then another two miles horizontally through the oil-rich sandstone and shale.
A National Geographic video explains the process well:
The process of extracting oil in the Bakken is expensive, about twice as expensive as traditional wells because it is so complicated.
Shale oil production is totally unlike drilling in any other part of the global market. In conventional wells, whether in the Middle East, the Gulf of Mexico, or the North Sea, the wells operate on extremely long cycles. Typically, the amount of crude oil they produce declines at between 2% and 5% per year. Hence, a well that generates 2,000 barrels a day in the first year will yield between 95% and 98% of that quantity in year two. Since the output falls so gradually, wells typically keep pumping for 20 years or longer…
Unlike conventional projects, shale wells enjoy an extremely short life. In the Bakken region straddling Montana and North Dakota, a well that starts out pumping 1,000 barrels a day will decline to just 280 barrels by the start of year two, a shrinkage of 72%. By the beginning of year three, more than half the reserves of that well will be depleted, and annual production will fall to a trickle. To generate constant or increasing revenue, producers need to constantly drill new wells, since their existing wells span a mere half-life by industry standards.
The process also creates an immense amount of waste. In addition to the oil that is pumped up through the well, the chemically contaminated water that was used in the fracking process must also be pumped up, as well as naturally occurring saltwater from deep underground. The transportation of so much liquid (water to the new well, waste water and oil from the well), not to mention the need to transport the components of the well structures, has led to a gigantic boom in trucking in North Dakota, overwhelming the two-lane highways, Forest Service roads, and prairie roads in the region.
Along with the pump jacks nodding up and down across farmland and prairie and the gas flares lighting the sky, the other most-visible sign of the Bakken boom are the trucks everywhere on the roads.
The United States Geological Service estimates that the Bakken oil field could produce up to 11 billion barrels of oil, and the state is nearing production of one million barrels per day. New wells are drilled every month, each one requiring between several hundred and 2,000 truck trips to haul material and supplies. The boom has drastically lowered the amount of oil the United States currently imports, but the frenzy to build infrastructure to support the production has far outpaced growth in the towns. The development has occurred so quickly that the social and environmental costs are considerable.
Now, North Dakota has more than 11,000 producing wells, and the state’s oil and gas division estimates capacity for 60,000 more, with drilling continuing for at least 20 years.
At times at some vistas, [Theodore Roosevelt National Park Superintendent Valerie] Naylor said a park visitor could see more than 20 natural gas flares shining in the distance.
With no single clearinghouse for applications along the park’s miles of jagged boundary, Naylor and her staff, along with the North Dakota citizen group Badlands Conservation Alliance, have been scouring meeting agendas of local and county governments and state commissions. They can only oppose the proposed developments that they see.
“There’s so many things going on so quickly. It might be a pipeline, power line, oil well, rail loading facility or new road … any number of things,” Naylor said.
Sometimes companies don’t even realize that they’re proposing development near the park boundaries, she and others said.
State officials proposed mandating a public comment period for certain oil and gas drilling plans up to 2 miles surrounding the park and 17 other areas deemed “extraordinary places” in North Dakota this year. Industry groups including the North Dakota Petroleum Council opposed the change, arguing that special interests shouldn’t trump the rights of private landowners. Officials scaled back the idea to allow public comment time for only public land developments in those zones.
The national park boundary abuts some drilling-susceptible public forest service land, which already has more than 600 wells in the western part of the state.
Most vulnerable of Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s three units is Elkhorn Ranch, which is surrounded by Forest Service land and private holdings. In 2014, the National Trust for Historic Places was able to get much of the land that comprised Roosevelt’s ranch on the eastern side of the Little Missouri, land now managed by the Forest Service, listed as part of the National Register of Historic Places. But the fight continues to protect the lines of site around the ranch property. See: Mo Rocca, “Teddy Roosevelt’s Retreat,” CBS Sunday Morning, January 4, 2015.
And then there’s the population explosion.
In August 2013, Williston, N.D., erected a sign at the entrance to town. Welcome, it reads,to Boomtown, U.S.A. That’s understating things. There are now about 40,000 people living here, up from 12,000 less than a decade ago. They have come from all over the world to find work, in the time-honored tradition of the gold rush. For years jobs went begging, with some of the highest wages in the country. At the end of 2014, Williston’s unemployment rate was 1.0%, the lowest in the U.S….
In Watford City, about 45 minutes southeast of Williston, the number of building permits doubled between 2013 and 2014, rising from 262 to 511; approved apartment units soared from 89 to 1,152 in just one year. Housing is so scarce that two-bedroom apartments rent for an average of $2,800 a month.
After passing through Medora, Sean and I continued east on I-94 until we reached US Route 85, the Theodore Roosevelt Expressway, at Belfield. From there, we headed due north for the 45-minute drive to the entrance to the North Unit. I wanted to top off the gas in the Jeep as close as possible to the park so that we’d be ready for a head start for Sunday’s drive back to Sioux Falls. We decided to forego filling up in Belfield in favor of Grassy Butte, a spot on the map about half way to the park entrance.
We noticed an appreciable increase in truck traffic on US-85 as we drove through flat farmland east of the Little Missouri.
We reached Grassy Butte, but there was nothing there. We were expecting, at least, since it was a marked spot on the map, a four-corners town with a gas station, but no.
Watford City was the next destination north, fifteen minutes past the North Unit’s entrance. Sean verified on his phone that there was a gas station there…two in fact…and we decided to spend the extra half hour round trip to take care of getting gas.
Forty-five minutes later, we were still waiting to pass through the first stoplight at the southern outskirts of town.
The traffic jam heading north into Watford City was incredible. US-85 was being widened, which contributed to the problem (and added to the road construction motif of our entire trip to the Dakotas), but even so, the volume of oil trucks, water trucks, flatbed trucks, pickups, and SUVs was astounding. Everyone was trying to get into Watford City from its southern approach. On either side of us construction trucks were reshaping the roadway. Just beyond them, new development in various stages of completion stretched into the farmland. There were also wells and rigs in the immediate vicinity of town. Everything felt pell-mell and half-complete. New chain hotels lined the highway, as did a massive new strip mall, which would end up being our ultimate destination for gas, once we were finally able to make a right-hand turn into the gas station.
None of this was yet on Google Maps. We hadn’t even reached the remnant core of the town and its gas stations that GPS was actually directing us to.
Construction and oil services offices lined the roadway while “man camps,” developments with hundreds of trailer homes arranged like barracks that served as housing for the mostly male workers in the oil patch, stretched into the distance.
We had read about all of this, and here we were right in the noisy, frustrating, astonishing middle of it.
We didn’t take any photographs while we were waiting in the traffic jam, partly because we were letting it all sink in, and partly because it would feel like we were on some sort of insane safari in the oil boom. And to my mind, I wasn’t sure how people in the other SUVs and such would react if they noticed our snapping away. We certainly didn’t feel comfortable.
After we gassed up and were making our way (again slowly, but at least moving this time) south out of town, Sean captured a set of images that give a sense of what it felt like.
The oil boom has brought both a spike in crime, from prostitution to heroin to murder, and an increase in housing and cost of living that has begun driving longtime residents away.
The issue of mineral rights in North Dakota can be heartbreaking. The state allows landowners to separate the mineral rights from the land itself. Many current landowners do not own the mineral rights to their land. Often this does not mean that they have sold if off, but that mineral rights on portions of the land that comprise a ranch or a farm were sold off generations ago, sometimes in five-acre parcels. In North Dakota, that means that the great-great grandchild of someone who once owned the land your ranch is on, and who might live somewhere else entirely, may lease your land (or the minerals beneath your land) to oil companies. The consequence is that a far-away person will get rich from the boom while you have no say. An oil company may come in and drill a well on your land without your getting any compensation or having any recourse to stop it.
The hive of machine and human activity in the Bakken is perhaps the most visible expression of the North Dakota fracking boom. Among the environmental impacts, light, noise, and air pollution, least visible yet insidious are the spills.
The recent national opposition to the Keystone XL — an extension of the pipeline system currently delivering oil from the Canadian tar sands to the United States — rallied around the possibility of spills of crude in Nebraska’s Sandhills. There were at least 1,100 spills in North Dakota’s stretch of the Bakken during 2011.
Natives like Ron Sylte are ambivalent. For them the flush times have brought benefits—and harm. A wheat farmer in Tyrone, a few miles outside Williston, Sylte discovered on Jan. 6  that the state’s largest-ever spill of brine water—the salty, contaminated water pumped back out of the well after fracking—had occurred on his property, leaking at least 3 million gallons into the earth so far, as well as into the Black Tail Creek, which eventually flows into the Missouri.
Sean, when he joined me for a presentation about the trip for my Openlands colleagues, remarked that he was glad to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park as it is now and would not like to see it in ten years, that given the insane pace of development, this would not be a region it would be pleasant to return to.
In the Harpers and National Geographic articles from March 2013, the assumption by all interviewed in North Dakota was that, good or bad, the Bakken oil boom was here to stay. Conservative estimates, based on the projected ability to frack oil from the Bakken shale, was that the boom would last at least another ten years. Many people forecasted that the boom would last thirty years. Certainly 2014 was a year of high gas prices, and the pellmell construction we encountered outside Watford City indicated that it was all systems go in Western North Dakota.
Then in the fall, the price of oil began to slide, due to a combination of factors including an economic slowdown in China, reduced consumption in the United States and especially Europe, and, ironically enough, the new supply of shale oil on the world market. The oil industry held its breath.
On Nov. 27 , the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries announced that, contrary to the assumptions of much of the oil industry, it would not cut its production to defend higher prices. Crude went into free fall. The price of a barrel of West Texas Intermediate (WTI), a benchmark for so-called light sweet crude oil, tumbled from its June high of $108 to a low in January of $44.
What does this mean for fracking?
On average, the “all-in,” breakeven cost for U.S. hydraulic shale is $65 per barrel, according to a study by Rystad Energy and Morgan Stanley Commodity Research. So, with the current price at $48, the industry is under siege. To be sure, the frackers will continue to operate older wells so long as they generate revenues in excess of their variable costs. But the older wells—unlike those in the Middle East or the North Sea—produce only tiny quantities. To keep the boom going, the shale gang must keep doing what they’ve been doing to thrive; they need to drill many, many new wells.
Right now, all signs are pointing to retreat. The count of rotary rigs in use—a proxy for new drilling—has fallen from 1,930 to 1,881 since October, after soaring during most of 2014.
It’s becoming fairly clear that oil prices are correcting after something that may be called a long bubble. But if you had told me six months ago while Sean and I were waiting forever to turn right into a gas station in Watford City that in just six months the outlook would have changed so dramatically, I’d not have believed you.
A piece published in Fortune last week, which serves as a bookend to the Harpers and National Geographic articles from exactly two years earlier, captures the increasingly palpable concern underlying the boomtown optimism in Williston and Watford City:
In mid-February the Williston Herald predicted there would be no major oil-company layoffs in the short term, though there were a lot of references to “efficiencies.” For all the bravado, a few don’t conceal their anxiety. “There’s a sense of panic,” says James Stumpp, originally of Tallahassee, who runs a completion rig and says he’s been through busts in other states. “About three weeks ago our managers told us to start saving.” His wife was planning to join him this summer, but now he’s not sure if she should come.
Denishia Bradshaw, a secretary who arrived a year ago with her husband, an oilfield worker from Virginia Beach, says 10 people have already been laid off at his company. If things don’t change by May, she says they told him, there will be “drastic cuts”…
Joshua Stansbury, captain of the local Salvation Army, says the need for social services is growing rapidly, as people either show up and can no longer find easy work or lose the work they had. “We used to see 20-some people in a week,” he says. “Now we see 20 or more in a day.”
There’s no homeless shelter, so the organization has been buying some people one-way bus tickets out of Williston. “The idea is not just to get people out of here,” Stansbury says. It’s simply the most humane choice. “Maybe,” he says, “it’s just best for some of them to go back home.”
The state itself is close to receiving the ultimate comeuppance for its great unregulated give-away to the oil industry. Even if fracking in the Bakken continues, North Dakota may end up like the landowners with no mineral rights to their land:
[North Dakota state law] lowers oil companies’ extraction taxes on new wells from 6.5% to 2% if the NYMEX average monthly price per barrel falls to $57.50. As of Feb. 1, that trigger was activated, so oil companies won’t have to pay the full 6.5% until the price rises above $72.50. If it remains below $55.09 for five consecutive months (we’re now in month two), the companies will pay no extraction taxes on any wells drilled after 1987, which is to say the vast majority. How dire would that be for the state? Already the North Dakota legislature has slashed its estimates of oil and gas revenues through 2017, from $8.3 billion to $4.3 billion.
Echoes from Roosevelt’s time haunt this moment in the Bakken oil fields. The cover blurb of National Parks asks, “What would Teddy think?” It’s a complicated question because Roosevelt himself was part of the cattle ranching boom in the region in the 1880s. Against a backdrop of near-lawlessness, rich men from elsewhere, other parts of the West, the East Coast, and even Europe, came to North Dakota to establish ranches by staking claims on public lands. This economic boom drew unskilled labor seeking jobs from other parts of the continent. Just as in the Bakken today, the demographic boom then was largely male, leading to rowdiness, casual violence, drunkenness, prostitution, etc.
The winter of 1886-1887 was brutal. Many tens of thousands of cattle died of cold and starvation across the Badlands, including a huge proportion of Roosevelt’s herd. Roosevelt had already begun to scale down his operations the preceding autumn as the price of beef fell. Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow at the Elkhorn took their families back to Maine. Roosevelt put the Elkhorn into the capable hands of Sylvan Ferris and Bill Merrifield at the Maltese Cross. After the devastating winter, from which Roosevelt would not fully recover financially until at least his time in the White House, the era of the free range cattle boom of the Northern Plains was over. Medora, which had been touted as a strong candidate to be the state capital as North Dakota officially entered the union, fell into obscurity, saved from becoming a ghost town by its historical connection to Roosevelt.
Sean and I continued south on US-85, slowly pulling ourselves out of the gravitational field of Watford City. As the sun cast long shadows across the Badlands, we reached the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.