:: 2018 “THIS LAND IS…” WRITING CONTEST FINALIST ::
Teddy Roosevelt, well fires, Jack Daniel’s, shot strays, hypnotic bobbing, Minneapolis-Moline tractors, rattlesnakes, surveyors, the Bakken Formation, volatile compounds & the Badlands.
On a sunny Monday afternoon in early September 2013, I sat in the passenger seat of Donny Nelson’s dark-blue Ford pickup truck, heading along a bumpy dirt road. Nelson drove and his small, shaggy dog, Lucky, perched on the leather divider between us. The clouds overhead extended for miles across the horizon, shifting and dancing along the curves of grassy hills.
A country singer crooned on the radio as Nelson stared out his window. He’d been explaining how he ended up with the oil rigs around his home. It had to do with mineral rights, and the fact that he didn’t own what was below his property. We passed a pipeline construction site on the left. The side of the hill was carved out, revealing a wall of black dirt. Four yellow CAT excavators sat in a line like they were prepping for battle.
Nelson’s farmland was one of the most beautiful parts of North Dakota I’d seen so far. I’d been living in oil country for two months, and my impression of the area was that it had become a wasteland. I’d seen more traffic, dust and heavy industry than in any major metropolitan city I’d visited—in a state that, a mere three years before, had the third-lowest population in the United States. But this area of North Dakota was different. It was part of the Badlands: instead of flat prairie, rolling hills and eroded rock formations speckled the golden landscape. Theodore Roosevelt, who lived in North Dakota as a young man, once described the Badlands as “so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth.”
The days when this land was remote and sacred seemed like a long time ago.
As Nelson talked, he leaned forward in his seat, looking off into the distance. “Do you see that smoke?” he asked, pointing to the hills on the left. I saw nothing at first, but as I stared at the spot he was gesturing at, I saw gray smoke billowing up into the sunny sky.
Nelson drove faster and Lucky sat up, sensing something was wrong.
“I definitely smell smoke,” said Nelson. “It’s right in the middle of my pasture.”
We curved around a corner, and I held onto the door to keep from sliding. Nelson navigated the truck off the dirt road and onto the hilly pasture. My head almost hit the top of the cab. Finally we saw the source of the smoke: It was coming from an oil-well site on Nelson’s land.
Nelson pulled up and stepped out of his truck, and I followed. About six Hess employees stood around the singed grass, with one guy hosing it down. The smoke from the blackened patch floated up in thin strands into the blue sky.
One guy recognized Nelson and walked over. “Hi, Donny, sorry about this. A bulldozer hit a rock and created a spark. Luckily we saw it before it got too bad.”
Nelson nodded, looking frustrated. He knew the guy, he told me later. He was a local. Nelson told them to update him if anything else happened, and we went on our way. “As you can see, nobody called the fire department,” he said as we lifted ourselves back into the truck. I learned later that the fire was never reported and Nelson didn’t receive compensation for the damage. Although he tried to be patient with the workers, knowing it wasn’t always their fault, he wanted them to be respectful of his home. “If they didn’t tell me about it, I’d make them pay,” he said. “Because then you just get mad.”
The number of wells here would likely double or triple within a year—almost as if the oil wells were soldiers slowly invading, and, once again, those living off the land were caught in the crossfire.
Nelson is fifty-one years old and owns about eight thousand acres of farmland—growing peas, oats, barley, durum, flax and corn, and raising cattle—in what used to be one of the most remote areas of the country. The entire twenty-three-thousand-acre area he lives on has fewer than ten families. Nelson went to elementary school with Wanda Lappell down the road, and almost every day he stops by the house of his neighbor Roger, whom he’s known most of his life, to see how he’s doing. When I visited Nelson, my GPS couldn’t locate his address, so he gave me directions by providing the mile marker for his dirt road.
Nelson’s grandfather came to North Dakota from Minnesota under the Homestead Act, in the early 1900s. He took the train carrying a few suitcases of supplies to the small town of Tioga, seventy miles from Nelson’s farm, and had to wait until the Missouri River froze over to cross it. “He came over this hill right behind my house,” Nelson said, pointing, “and said, ‘This is where I’m going to stay.’”
The original farm is along Clark Creek (Nelson pronounces it “Clark Crek”), which was discovered by explorers Lewis and Clark. Nelson grew up working on the farm. His father never had hired help, so, as a small child, Nelson hauled water, pitched hay and rode in his father’s old Minneapolis-Moline tractor. His older brother did the tougher jobs. His father would strap his brother into a second tractor, stick it in gear and tell him to turn off the key if he ran into any problems. “Everybody did stuff like that,” said Nelson.
“We knew everybody. You didn’t lock your doors. We had no traffic. That’s what we liked and that’s why we farmed out here and put up with the winters,” he explained. “This was one of the most beautiful places. Everybody thinks their home is the most beautiful, but it was. It’s a unique area and I’ll never see it the same. I’m afraid future generations never will either.”
Nelson drove up to a lookout point, and we stepped out of the truck. As we stood looking out onto the expansive hills, a blend of amber and burnt orange swirled as the prairie grasses waved in the wind. The clouds cast dark shadows onto the wheat fields, and we saw oil well after oil well, each one pumping up and down methodically, their black exteriors silhouetted as the sun dipped below the horizon. Because underneath our feet, two miles below the earth’s surface, lay the Bakken Formation, a layer of shale that held some 170 billion barrels of oil trapped in its crevices and pores. It was the largest continuous oil accumulation the country had ever seen—and the United States had recently discovered how to tap into it.
The biggest mistake I made when I met Donny Nelson at his farm was bringing wine.
I don’t know what I was thinking.
Nelson drinks Bud Light or whiskey, not wine. Rena Nelson, his wife, doesn’t like wine either. Nelson showed me the handle of Jack Daniel’s sitting in his freezer.
Nelson is about as American West as you can get. Behind a bushy handlebar mustache, prominent lines carve deep into his tan skin when he smiles—almost as if he collects them, with each one representing the passing of another season and harvest. On most summer days, when temperatures rarely exceeded seventy degrees, Nelson wore a short-sleeve vintage Western shirt with pearled snap buttons, Wranglers and a hat to protect him from the elements. His favorite seemed to be a dust-covered Feiring Z Cattle Company cap with faded fabric on the brim. With few trees in sight, the blazing sun seemed to reach every crevice of land, and the wind could pick up without notice.
He lived with his wife in a two-story log house that he built himself when he was still a bachelor. He bought the logs from a neighbor, dug the basement by himself in the summer of 1996 and, with the help of friends and family, spent a year and a half building the house. The deep pine logs flanked the interior. The stairway and second-floor balcony were lined with railings made from smooth juniper cedar that Nelson recycled from old fence posts. The farmhouse sat at the bottom of a hill, shielded by small hills on either side. When you left his driveway and reached the dirt road, you were met with a skyline cluttered with a half-dozen oil wells. The wells extended all the way to the border of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, about sixty miles away. About a mile from Nelson’s farm was one of his favorite spots: the tallest land formation for miles, named Thunder Butte by the Native Americans.
Nelson’s farm was once part of the nearby Fort Berthold Indian Reservation before it was opened for homesteading. Nelson attended school on the reservation in New Town because it was the closest school to his house. About half the students in his class were Caucasian homesteaders and half were Native Americans. “I’ve always had a good relationship with most of them,” he said. “We have a lot of the same ideals.”
Nelson’s grandfather came to North Dakota from Minnesota under the Homestead Act, in the early 1900s. He took the train carrying a few suitcases of supplies to the small town of Tioga, seventy miles from Nelson’s farm, and had to wait until the Missouri River froze over to cross it.
Like most North Dakotans, Nelson liked to hunt. Pheasants were his favorite, but he didn’t mind shooting the occasional coyote (he pronounces it “cay-oat”) or stray dog that wandered onto his property. An elk head peered down onto his dining room table, and he kept a .220 Swift rifle in his truck. In his workshop, there was a sign: “vegetarian: the indian word for lousy hunter.” When I asked how many guns he owned, he said, “Let’s just say I have plenty.” Maybe because they shared a last name, he listened to a lot of Willie Nelson.
Nelson was a bachelor until his early forties, when he met Rena, a woman who grew up nearby in the small town of Watford City and worked at the local police department. They met at the annual steak and lobster festival dance in town, and she gave him her number. “I intended to call her, but then I got busy,” he said. Nelson didn’t see her again until almost a year later, when they ran into each other at another dance. After that, he finally called her.
Nelson traveled around when he was younger. After graduating from college with a degree in agricultural economics, he went to Australia to work on a sheep and cattle farm for six months, but quickly realized his farm in North Dakota was where he wanted to be. “Even while I was in Australia, it was pretty cemented in my mind that farming here was what I wanted to do,” he said. “Once you get away from home and seen other places and compare it to where you’re from, I thought, ‘We live in a pretty good place.’” He also traveled to Los Angeles once with Rena to visit friends and immediately decided the city was not for him. “We felt like a buncha hicks,” he said, laughing. “I can’t believe we survived.”
His “pretty good place,” however, was known among U.S. farmers for its extremely harsh conditions, and other farmers might run back to their (literally) greener pastures. The land here was unforgiving, a place where few crops could flourish except for robust grains such as barley and durum wheat. The average rainfall was only about seventeen inches, half the amount Iowa and Kansas received and only a few inches more than New Mexico. The weather could be extreme and unpredictable. For most of December, January and February, it was cold enough to freeze your nostril hairs as soon as you stepped outside. Droughts were frequent, with many scientists predicting that the drought cycle would become more severe in the coming years. While I lived in North Dakota during the summer of 2013, I experienced hailstorms with bouncy-ball-size pellets raining down on me, sixty-mile-an-hour winds and tornado warnings—all of which could completely take out a farmer’s crop for the year. “In the end, we don’t own the land,” said Nelson. “[The land] owns us.”
For farmers like Donny Nelson, the drilling activity began slowly. The surveyors came in with their tripods and maps to poke around on their land. Then the bulldozers came to clear away crops or vegetation. Then the trucks and crews arrived to install tanks and pipelines to prep the site for drilling. Usually once one company drilled a well or installed a pipeline, others came knocking. It was only later, after the drilling had already begun, that farmers realized just how disruptive the process was.
For one, there was the flaring. Nearly every well had a gas flare; most rose at least ten feet into the sky and burned off millions of cubic feet of toxic natural gas into the atmosphere every day. Although companies in other states produced and sold their natural gas, oil companies in North Dakota burned away about one-fifth to one-third of the natural gas they were extracting, or about $100 million of it every month, emitting about as much carbon dioxide a year as a million cars on the road.
More than sixty types of pollutants have been identified downwind from flaring operations, including benzene, methane, propylene and butane—many of which have been associated with cancer, birth defects and organ damage. “We know that they’re giving off volatile compounds into the air,” said Nelson. “And if you don’t flare the methane, it’ll kill you.”
“It sounds like a blowtorch,” said Wanda. “When you go to bed tonight, put a blowtorch in your bedroom, crank it up and see how well you sleep.”
There was also the concern about water contamination. Nelson continued to drink the water that came out of his faucet, which was piped in from Lake Sakakawea. It was a prospect that might horrify anti-fracking activists. Back in 2005, when fracking for natural gas was growing rapidly, the Bush-Cheney administration passed a bill that exempted fracking operations from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Companies were not required to disclose the exact chemicals they used, as such disclosures could reveal trade secrets. Even the pioneer of fracking, George P. Mitchell, advocated for more regulation before he passed away in 2013. He wrote that there were “legitimate concerns” about the rapid expansion of fracking and its “impact on water, air and climate—concerns that industry has attempted to gloss over.”
Brenda Jorgenson, who lived fifty miles north of Nelson, was cleaning jars one day when dirty water gushed out of her faucet. Crews had fracked an oil well on her land a few months before. She had no way of proving there was a connection, but the incident scared her; her well was her only source of drinking water. She saved a jar of the tainted water in her refrigerator and tried to get it tested, but most places she called were unaffordable (one company quoted her $1,500), didn’t know what to test the water for or needed the sample sent to the lab within hours of the incident. Though the water from her faucet eventually cleared up, she started buying bottled water for her grandkids and pregnant daughter. She and her husband, however, continued to drink tap water.
Lynn Helms, the director for North Dakota’s Department of Mineral Resources, claimed in 2011 that the health department had received multiple complaints from landowners about health concerns, but he couldn’t disclose any of that information to the public. “I believe six or seven individuals have brought concerns about health effects to our attention,” he said that year. But it was “personal information which falls under HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996] regulations. Once an individual is alleging health problems as a result of oil and gas operations and once the health department responds and begins to work with them on blood tests and that sort of thing, that’s highly confidential information. I’m not sure it will ever be made public.”
The EPA has documented cases of groundwater contamination from fracking since the early 1980s. A nationwide 2015 study found evidence that all stages of fracking can lead to water contamination, including when fracking fluids are injected into the well, during flowback collection and during procedures to store wastewater underground. Groundwater also can be contaminated from surface spills or pipeline leaks; the study concluded that the most common cause of fracking fluid spills was from equipment failure, particularly of valves and blowout preventers. Researchers found that public drinking-water systems for more than 8.6 million people in the United States were located within a mile of at least one fracked well.
Nelson and other farmers wanted to limit the damage as much as possible. In 2006, he and his neighbors fought with legislators to move wells farther away from homes—from 350 feet away to 500 feet. The legislation passed, but 500 feet was still uncomfortably close—and oil storage tanks or generators could be even closer.
“In the end, we don’t own the land,” said Nelson. “[The land] owns us.”
Consider the case of Nelson’s neighbors, Frank and Wanda Leppell. I visited them on a rainy Monday afternoon at their modest one-story farmhouse. They lived at the end of a long dirt road, with two dogs and three cats and seven horses in the backyard. (“Don’t go in the bathroom,” Wanda told me when I came in the house. “The cat took a dump.”) Rusted farm equipment was scattered across their front yard. They poured me a cup of coffee and we gazed out their front window from the dining-room table at an oil well that sat a quarter mile from their house. Above the hypnotic bobbing of the oil wellhead, a vertical flame spewed into the sky. “It sounds like a blowtorch,” said Wanda. “When you go to bed tonight, put a blowtorch in your bedroom, crank it up and see how well you sleep.”
She said the flare was tiny compared to what it once was. “It looked like the field was on fire,” she said. The Leppells owned thirty acres and leased about four thousand acres of cropland and pasture, but they had zero ownership of what was under their feet. Twice Wanda had woken up to the house filled with gas. She and Frank often felt vibrations from drilling and sometimes had to leave just to take a break from the smell. “There’s a chemical, something in the drilling mud, that smells like rotten egg,” Wanda said. “I don’t know if it’s bad for your health.”
The Leppells likely wouldn’t be getting a good night’s rest anytime soon. As we talked, another company was already clearing dirt to build a well 730 feet from their house. “I can’t imagine what that’s going to sound like,” said Wanda. The edge of the pad, a large clearing for the wells, sat up against their chicken coop. The Leppells had been pushing state legislators to set wells at least a thousand feet from homes, but so far they had had little success. “There is no reason they have to put these so close to people’s homes,” Frank told state senators at a hearing in early 2013, when farmers tried to pass a setback bill. A lobbyist from Petro-Hunt, an oil and gas extraction company headquartered in Texas, spoke in opposition to the bill, and it never passed. Theodora Birdbear, a tribal member from Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, also spoke in support of the setback bill at the hearing: “I support my neighbor in efforts to protect the health and public safety of western North Dakota residents,” she said. “Right now, well blowouts, explosions or fires from well sites can potentially occur five hundred feet from the door of any resident. As state legislators, do you support this?” The answer, it seemed, was yes.
About a month into my first research trip to North Dakota, I discovered that an opposing opinion was difficult in a pro-drill state. I expected to see frequent protests against fracking and arrived early to my first city council meeting in Williston, thinking there might be hundreds of angry locals crammed into the small room. But what I found was much different. I followed Nelson to a local county commissioners’ meeting in Watford City. Standing behind a group of developers and builders presenting their case to receive a permit—which seemed like a courtesy, as not a single one went unapproved—were three farmers there to express their anger and concerns with the development: an elderly man with white hair who spoke in stuttered sentences, Nelson and Nelson’s thirty-nine-year-old nephew, Troy.
Nelson was considered a troublemaker, according to most North Dakotans—though he was the kindest, softest-spoken troublemaker I’d ever met. He spoke out publicly against the lack of regulation over the oil companies. He wrote op-eds about the dangerous trains transporting Bakken oil throughout the country and became the oil and gas chair for a pro-environment advocacy group, the Western Organization of Resource Councils. The local chapter, the Dakota Resource Council, called itself “the watchdogs of the prairie.” When he was in his mid-twenties, Nelson participated in protests at the Canadian border to support farmers’ rights, and in 2010, he attended an anti-fracking rally in Washington, DC, where he met Gasland director Josh Fox. Nelson didn’t raise genetically modified crops on principle. He wouldn’t call himself an environmentalist, though. He and other farmers who agreed with him called themselves conservationists, because they wanted to conserve the environment. There was a difference, they told me.
In some ways, Nelson was not atypical of North Dakota farmers; he struggled with wanting to conserve and protect the land around him while reckoning with his conservative upbringing that championed the free market. In an overwhelmingly Republican state, Nelson voted Independent in the 2012 presidential election because he didn’t like either candidate, voted for a Democrat in the 2008 race for governor, then voted for Republican Jack Dalrymple in the 2012 governor’s race.
Dalrymple had taken the post in 2010 after Governor John Hoeven resigned to become a senator, and he was thrilled to inherit an oil boom. He successfully ran for reelection two years later. Though Nelson voted for Dalrymple, he regretted that decision after the governor seemed to favor the oil companies over the farmers. “He was enamored by the amount of money coming in, and I think there was some funny business going on,” said Nelson.
When I asked how many guns he owned, he said, “Let’s just say I have plenty.”
ExxonMobil, Continental and Marathon Oil all contributed to Dalrymple’s campaign, and in total he collected about $550,000 from oil-related groups. These types of contributions are not uncommon for elected officials in oil-producing states, but North Dakota was unique in that Dalrymple was also the chairman of the Industrial Commission, which was responsible for promoting and regulating the industry, a fact that created many potential conflicts of interest. In addition, Dalrymple and his wife owned oil stock in ExxonMobil, which frequently did business with the Industrial Commission.
Other government agencies in North Dakota didn’t provide many checks and balances. The state’s Department of Mineral Resources, headed by Lynn Helms, tended to approve the Industrial Commission policies. According to a New York Times review of Industrial Commission meeting minutes from 2011 to 2014, there were zero failed motions related to oil and gas. Helms also worked for Hess and Texaco for years before joining the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. Nelson heard Helms call the people impacted by oil development “collateral damage.”
State agencies are supposed to fine companies for spills and other violations, for example, but in a three-year span, the Department of Mineral Resources and the Health Department issued fewer than fifty disciplinary fines for all drilling violations, including thousands of spills. Many times the fines were later dismissed or reduced significantly. The Department of Mineral Resources increased its staff by thirty percent but still had only nineteen inspectors in 2012, fewer than other oil states; Oklahoma, for example, had fifty-eight. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wasn’t much help. The agency could investigate spill complaints only on federal lands. Helms himself admitted that the EPA’s presence in the state was limited: “The EPA has oversight over our program, but the last time an EPA person came to Bismarck, North Dakota, and checked our records was in September of 2001,” he said in 2011.
When I asked Nelson why more people didn’t fight back and protest, he shook his head. That’s not the North Dakota way, he explained: “They call it ‘North Dakota nice.’ If you disagree, maybe you walk away and do it your own way, but you don’t cause waves.” The slow way of life in the plains didn’t foster much urgency to create change. “The farmers and ranchers of western North Dakota can wait years for rain,” wrote Kathleen Norris back in 2001. “Time is defined not by human urgency but by the natural rhythms of day and night, and of the seasons.” Among a peer group of stoic non-complainers, Nelson stood out. “People come to me because I tell the bad side,” he said.
N elson’s latest battle was fighting a legal process called unitization. Companies typically broke up drilling areas into 1,280-acre parcels, but unitization combined those parcels into a mega-unit of 30,000 to 40,000 acres in an attempt to increase profits for everyone when a well aged and less oil (and thus money) flowed. Unitization was promoted in the early 1990s when North Dakota’s oil production had plummeted. During that time, the state legislature lowered the percentage of mineral owners required to form a unit. In theory, the law was supposed to help the company and the landowner. The company cut costs, and landowners still received profits because they’d be part of a larger parcel with more wells, though the revenue would be divided up between more families. The downside was that once you agreed to unitization, the companies could create a new lease on their own terms, potentially giving them more power.
Nelson saw the reality of what happened under unitization in 2012. The Industrial Commission approved a deal to combine smaller units into a thirty-thousand-acre mega-unit near Corral Creek, a few miles away from Nelson’s property. Many landowners within the mega-unit had no say in the deal because only sixty percent of the unit’s mineral owners were needed for approval, and the state government owned many of the mineral acres within the unit. Nelson’s neighbor, who was involved in the deal, lost his original lease and seventy percent of his monthly royalty payments. ConocoPhillips, which had purchased fifty percent of the new unit, argued that unitization would allow the company to protect more land and drill fewer wells, reportedly telling landowners it planned to drill only eighty-three wells in the entire spacing unit. But after the deal was approved, ConocoPhillips revised that number to two hundred wells. Nelson worried that the company would do the same with his land. “They’d basically be able to do whatever they want,” he said.
A thirty-thousand-acre plot is about the size of Manhattan. I decided to climb up Thunder Butte on a clear sunny afternoon to get a better idea of how much land could be in jeopardy. There was no trail to the summit, so I pushed past sagebrush, reeds and prairie grass to get there.
Underneath our feet, two miles below the earth’s surface, lay the Bakken Formation, a layer of shale that held some 170 billion barrels of oil trapped in its crevices and pores. It was the largest continuous oil accumulation the country had ever seen—and the United States had recently discovered how to tap into it.
The butte has been a sacred landmark for Native Americans for hundreds of years. When I reached the flat top, there was a single tree branch in the center with a faded red fabric tied around it, almost like a flag. It was the only remnant of the tribal ceremonies that once took place here. Nelson and his brother used to climb to the top as small children and carved their names next to hundreds of others, some dating back to the 1800s.
I could see in every direction and spotted Nelson’s house. I also counted at least fifteen oil wells, two of which were directly below the butte, as well as about a dozen more holding tanks storing either oil or brine and a large waste pit to the east. The number of wells here would likely double or triple within a year—almost as if the oil wells were soldiers slowly invading, and, once again, those living off the land were caught in the crossfire. The days when this land was remote and sacred seemed like a long time ago.
I scrambled down some rocks and saw the carvings, though I couldn’t find Nelson’s or his brother’s name. I started to head back down, but when I reached the edge, the path looked much steeper than I remembered. I walked to the opposite side of the butte and the land dropped off to a sheer rock face. I suddenly felt an overwhelming fear of heights. After a brief panic, I decided to return the way I came, sliding down on my rear the entire way and inching through the tall grass. Only later did Nelson tell me the grass was crawling with rattlesnakes.
The next day, Nelson and I drove along a highway that followed the Missouri River to one of his durum fields a few miles away. A few years ago, on this same highway, he used to ride his motorcycle and not meet another vehicle for miles. “This used to be the most scenic drive in the U.S., and now it’s all oil wells,” he told me. That day, with fifty-thousand-pound semis continuously roaring by at seventy miles an hour, it had become too dangerous to take his motorcycle out. “[The area] is full of natural springs, but now I don’t even recognize it,” he said. All drivers could see were oil wells and their flares, burning off natural gas twenty-four hours a day. Waste disposal tanks speckled the landscape. The tanks were frequent targets for lightning strikes and easily caught fire. It wasn’t uncommon to see black smoke clouds billowing up into the open sky on clear days. “It will never be the same in my lifetime,” said Nelson.
Blaire Briody is a journalist based in Santa Rosa, California. She has written for The New York Times, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Fast Company and Glamour, among others, and has been a staff writer and senior editor at the Fiscal Times. This essay is an excerpt from her book, The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown, which was the 2016 finalist for the Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from Columbia Journalism School and Harvard University; it also was long-listed for the 2018 Chautauqua Prize. Briody received the Richard J. Margolis Award for emerging journalists in 2014 and Proximity magazine’s Narrative Journalism Prize (selected by judge Ted Conover) in 2017. This essay has been edited.
Lead image: Anders Ipsen