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Bombing North Dakota: What It's Like to Live Amid the Oil Boom

The oil rush in North Dakota has turned life there inside out. As White Earth rancher Scott Davis puts it: “We’re collateral damage.”

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Allison Ritter, spokesperson for the North Dakota Industrial Commission, disputed Braaten’s account of the episode, saying, “A conversation like that never happened.” She then said: “We at the oil and gas division have lots of interests to look out for – mineral rights owners, surface owners, operators. We can’t impede on the right of the mineral owners to develop their minerals. It’s in our state constitution.”

The North Dakota Petroleum Council and two major oil companies drilling in the state did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

There is one ongoing, structural form of leakage occurring in the North Dakota oil fields that everyone agrees is happening: the routine leaking of natural gas. Methane is so abundant below ground, and so mixed with oil, that everything that comes up the well is full of natural gas. Much of this is burned off at flaring stations near the wells for the simple reason that gas is cheap while oil is valuable. At one level, it’s an enormous waste. Some 100 million cubic feet of gas are burned at well sites each day, enough to power a city of 500,000 – and all because oil companies find it more expedient to burn the gas rather than build pipelines to carry it off. In reality, though, flaring burns only a portion of the gas. Because of the constant pressure on seams, joints, and valves, the systems leak gases during transfers. This leakage has an environmental impact far beyond the North Dakota. Methane, after all, is a potent greenhouse gas. Over its 12-year lifespan it is about 50 times more heat-trapping than CO2.

It’s not as if the people of western North Dakota don’t want any oil drilling. Almost all of the farmers and ranchers who express concern about fracking at one time either worked for the oil companies themselves or have family members who did. Oil-related jobs are often the only way to get the money to build a farm or ranch. But the current boom – largely unregulated and proceeding without careful consideration for the long-term impacts – isn’t facilitating rural livelihoods anymore. It’s destroying them. Even some veteran oil patch workers express surprise at the Wild West frenzy underway. A rancher near White Earth recalls a conversation he had with an oil worker last summer. “There’s going to be nothing left in northwest North Dakota,” the oilman said. “I’m 62 years old and I’ve worked 40 years in oil fields all over the country, but I’ve never seen any place like this. It’s a free-for-all out here. It will be a toxic waste dump. No one will be able to live here.”

Longtime North Dakota residents and experienced oil industry employees Jacki and Steve Schilke feel much the same way. Jacki no longer works in the industry, but Steve still does, inspecting pipelines for an independent maintenance company. A decade ago they bought a 160-acre ranch just north of Williston, a fulfillment of their lifelong dream to raise cattle. Starting in 2008, 35 wells went in along the roads within three miles of their home. In May 2010, drilling began on a well and drilling-waste disposal pit about 600 yards from their house. Soon the air began to smell of gases. In June 2011, their previously healthy Yorkie died. Then the cattle sickened. By the fall of that year, Jacki says, “I was so sick I couldn’t walk.” She traveled to a clinic in Montana, where urine tests revealed arsenic poisoning. The arsenic most likely came from the fly-ash used to reinforce the fracking wastewater pits.

 
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