As I wrote last week, I recently had the opportunity to spend a day in the North Dakota oil fields with Ron Ness of the North Dakota Petroleum Council and Blaine Hoffman of Whiting Oil’s Dickinson office. Last week I wrote about the technological ingenuity that allows us to send a steel probe more than two miles into the earth, then make it turn a 90-degree corner, and snake its way thousands of feet into the sweet spot of an oil-bearing shale formation. That formation is then pneumatically fractured (fracked) so that it releases the oil that has previously been locked in the shale. Current technologies thus allow us to extract gigantic quantities of oil (or natural gas) that would have been impossible to recover just a few years ago.
The best part of the field day for me was having the opportunity to pitch dozens of questions to two of the best-informed professionals in North Dakota. Here’s what I learned.
Dramatic improvements in the oil industry promise a light environmental footprint at each well site. The pads are much smaller now. Reserve pits—hazardous to birds, harder to reclaim—will soon be a thing of the past. Multiple wells can be drilled on a single site, and then maneuvered far underground to reach out laterally in every direction to the productive Bakken shale formations. According to Ness and Hoffman, as many as 20 wells could be drilled on a single pad, and already it is routine for several to be drilled at one site. This will greatly reduce the number of access roads required to develop Bakken oil. It will “space” the wells far enough apart to reduce or eliminate the visual blight, what we think of as the “classical Texas oil field” phenomenon. Because the oil shale is everywhere (not concentrated in randomly scattered deep pools as in traditional oil development) the fracking wells can be lined up, one every 640 or 1,280 feet for long distances along a single section line access road. This eliminates the need for a winding scoria access road to just one well (as in the past), and enables oil pipelines, service vehicles, power lines, water supplies, flaring collection pipelines, and other extraction logistics to be channeled along a single production corridor. Thus industry efficiency and a much lighter industrial footprint go hand in hand.
Reclamation is now outstanding. When the oil production at a well site ends, the company is required by law to reclaim the site: seal the well periodically throughout its length, bury the wellhead safely below the surface, remove the gravel pad, restore the landscape to its former contours, replace the topsoil that had been set aside when the pad was developed, erase access roads, and reseed the ground. We visited three former well sites in the National Grasslands north and west of Belfield. They were so superbly reclaimed that a casual visitor to the badlands would never be able to identify them. Even our hosts had some trouble finding the sites. Only a grass biologist would be able to spot the difference, at least until the prairie completes its own reclamation of the site. Conclusion: several decades from now, “when the landscape is quiet again,” it will be difficult to see much lingering evidence of the widespread industrialization of western North Dakota at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
There is really no way to slow the boom down. Leases on private lands require the oil company to develop the site within three years—or lose the lease. Leases on National Grasslands property provide a 10-year development window. (This is the reason that, so far, there has been less oil activity in the Badlands than on non-federal lands.) The success rate on Bakken wells is so great (over 99 percent), and the leasing activity has been so frenetic throughout western North Dakota, that there is what might be called a “structural urgency” to develop the fields. The only limiting factors at the moment are the finite number of available rigs and the availability of personnel and development capital. Ron Ness believes that it would not be desirable to slow things down in the Bakken oil zone even if there were a way to do so. The intense boom & rush dynamics, he said, are attracting outside investors to build hotels, permanent housing complexes, restaurants, shopping facilities, and a wide range of other amenities that are changing the quality of life in western North Dakota for the good. If you transformed the “gold rush” mentality to something less frenetic (assuming it were possible), these opportunistic outside investors might back away from investing in North Dakota’s future at someone else’s expense.
We must meet the urgent infrastructural needs of the impact zone. Ness believes that North Dakota needs to devote approximately $1 billion of the oil surplus per year for the next five or six years to build an industrial and community infrastructure that will enable the oil industry to develop the Bakken fields more efficiently, more safely, with less dust and disruption, and with less stress on wildlife and the landscape. This includes relief for the impacted communities, a vastly larger and sturdier highway system, improved airport facilities, bypass roads, ruggedized oil corridor roads, rest areas, increased law enforcement throughout the Bakken zone, and much more. There is both a moral and a practical urgency in this. Both Ness and Hoffman said that the state—not the industry—should undertake these infrastructural developments. Ness said that while this investment might seem gigantic, in the long run it will serve to increase rather than diminish the state surplus; that it should be seen as a state investment rather than an industry subsidy; and that it will go a long way towards easing the “growing pains” in the impact zone.
If you accept either of these two propositions—that the Bakken Oil Boom is on balance not only a good thing for North Dakota, but potentially one of the best things that ever happened in North Dakota; and that the boom is here, here to stay, huge and growing, and at this point there really isn’t anything that can be done to chasten it or slow the pace—then it is in all of our interests (from Fargo to Fairfield, Grand Forks to Grassy Butte) to find ways to manage the boom to the best of our ability, to ease the pain and strain in the impact zone in every possible way, and to invest the bulk of our current surplus in the oil zone’s aching infrastructure.
You know the television commercial: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” One thing is absolutely certain.
This is not your grandparents’ North Dakota. Either we embrace the change or it will roll right over us.
(Clay Jenkinson is the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College and director of the Dakota Institute. Clay can be reached at Jeffysage@aol.com or through his website, Jeffersonhour.org.)