Bombing North Dakota: What It's Like to Live Amid the Oil Boom
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Brenda phoned me that night. She was in tears and at wits’ end. “Who do you call?” she cried. “What do you do?”
The Jorgenson’s experience, dramatic though it might be, is not necessarily exceptional in western North Dakota these days. In just five years North Dakota has gone from a quiet agricultural state to a rapidly industrializing energy powerhouse. By the middle of 2012 North Dakota was producing about 660,000 barrels of oil a day, more than twice as much as just two years before. That number makes North Dakota the second largest oil producing state in the United States, after Texas.
All of the new oil is coming from a vast underground deposit called the Bakken Shale that stretches from North Dakota west into Montana and north into Canada. The US Geological Survey estimates that the reservoir contains between 3 and 4 billion barrels of recoverable oil, a figure that would put it on par with Alaska’s North Slope. According to the USGS, the Bakken is the largest known oil reserve in the lower 48. Unlike conventional oil deposits – which are found in liquid pools and flow toward the surface when tapped – the “shale oil” in the Bakken is trapped amid layers of rock roughly two miles beneath the surface of the earth. Oil geologists have known about the formation since 1953. But the petroleum there wasn’t recoverable until hydraulic fracturing technology was perfected in the early aughts.
With the advent of fracking, the oil rush into North Dakota has been relentless. Some 150 companies, both wildcatters and oil majors, are drilling up to eight exploratory wells a day. In 2007, about 175 new wells were completed and started to pump oil. In 2009, 450 new wells were in put into production. By 2011 the number of new wells completed doubled to 900.
North Dakota’s political establishment – Democrats and Republicans alike – view the oil boom as a huge success. Thanks largely to the new oil play in the Bakken, the state’s economy is surging. More than 41,000 workers were hired in North Dakota between 2008 and 2012, and the state has the lowest unemployment rate in the country. National leaders are pleased, too. All the oil pouring out of North Dakota has markedly improved US energy security. As recently as 2005, the US was importing 60 percent of the oil it consumes; today imports account for 42 percent of consumption. “Kuwait on the Prairie,” is how one headline writer described the Bakken.
But not everyone is happy about the situation. Traveling across northwest North Dakota it is not difficult to find farmers, ranchers, and Native Americans who are outraged by what they are experiencing. Many North Dakotans view the oil rush as an assault on their communities and the places they love. The current oil rush seems to them different than the last oil boom that took over the state in the 1970s. The petroleum in the Bakken Shale is what the fossil fuel industry refers to as “tight oil,” or what environmentalists call “extreme energy.” Like the petroleum locked in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, shale oil is hard to get at even with the most advanced technologies. All of the extra effort involved in extraction means that Bakken oil has an especially heavy impact – on water resources, on land use, on wildlife and habitat, on the fabric of communities. The oil rush in North Dakota has turned life there inside out. As White Earth rancher Scott Davis puts it: “We’re collateral damage.”
The anger some North Dakotans feel toward the oil and gas industry is fueled by the feeling that the situation is totally out of their control. In many instances, people say, the oil companies haven’t been invited to drill – they’ve just invaded.