Sustainability and North Dakota’s oil boom

The North Dakota frontier from Bentley, ND, in 2007. The state is currently experiencing phenomenal growth, and Dean Hulse looks at the environmental consequences of such growth.
Photo from afiler via Flickr.

Murmurings about North Dakota’s current oil boom began to surface in late 2008. While a global financial crisis was under way, North Dakota’s unemployment rate shrunk to astonishing low levels as the state became flooded with opportunities, and challenges, that continue today, and by some estimates might continue for decades (most recently featured in the New York Times Magazine).

Dean Hulse, author of Westhope: Life as a Former Farm Boy and an activist for issues of land use, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture, has agreed to engage with us about long-term issues facing the state—which have implications for discussions about land use across the American frontier.

1. Much has been written about the economic boom and rapid population growth of North Dakota. Should we be talking more about the ways the land is being affected?

Thoughts about the land should always come first, if we’re serious about sustainability, which is to say, maintaining an ecological balance so that our natural resources are preserved for future generations. While we can’t yet comprehend the full effect of all the oil and gas exploitation under way in North Dakota, we certainly know a consequence of transforming the Great Plains largely from grassland to farmland. That outcome has been described by two words that will live in environmental infamy: “Dust Bowl.”

My dad lived through the “Dirty Thirties,” and that experience formed the land ethic he passed on to me. About ten years ago, I came to fully appreciate 1930s-era soil erosion. A contractor leveled a tall ridge on some farmland I own, and when he had dug about five feet into the ridge, he discovered steel fence posts and barbed wire that had been covered by wind-blown topsoil.

2. What are your gravest concerns about the current state of land use in North Dakota?

Water depletion. Chip Brown’s NYT Magazine article includes this observation: “After drilling companies finish securing leased acreage, it will take 20 years to develop the 35,000 to 40,000 production wells needed to fully exploit the ‘thermally mature’ part of the Bakken shale, an area about the size of West Virginia.”

The process known as hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) is necessary to recover most of the Bakken Formation’s crude oil. In his article, Brown says about “95 percent of the Bakken won’t yield its oil” without fracking.

A recent Forum Communications news article details the volume of North Dakota’s water going to oil and gas production. In 2012, the industry used at least 5.4 billion gallons, with about 70 percent of that total for fracking. The State Water Commission estimates that, on average, each fracked well requires at least 2 million gallons, with a few individual fracking jobs demanding somewhere between 8 to 11 million gallons. The article quotes a North Dakota State Water Commission hydrologist who acknowledges that the agency has yet to determine how much water can be used in a sustainable manner. The potential industry thirst—40,000 wells and perhaps 2 million gallons per well—is exponential.

3. How does North Dakota’s history inform the current situation?

The history of white settlement teaches us to be skeptical about promoters of all stripes. In Westhope (the essay “Rocks Taking Root”), I quote sections from Beyond the Hundredth Meridian by Wallace Stegner. The one hundredth meridian slices through North Dakota, and so the claims of 19th century promoters such as William Gilpin should function as a bellwether against the oil patch effusiveness we’re now witnessing. Here’s a particularly telling quote: “Gilpin joined the politicians and the railroads, eager for settlers, in finding most of the plains region exuberantly arable.” Translation: rain follows the plow.

4. What do you make of the rapid period of growth the state has experienced?

Many North Dakotans are beginning to understand that the terms “growth” and “development” aren’t synonymous. Growth relates to quantity—i.e., the more the better—but uncontrolled growth is also a definition for cancer. By contrast, development implies a focus on community—on quality of life. A case in point is Williston, a western North Dakota city in the heart of the oil patch. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, Williston now is the nation’s fastest growing “micropolitan area,” which has a population between 10,000 and 49,999. And yet, Standard & Poor’s Rating Services recently downgraded Williston’s credit rating.

5. Chip Brown’s article cites experts who estimate the Bakken Formation holds somewhere between 169 billions barrels and 503 billion barrels of oil. What are the most important things the state should be doing now to prepare for a long period of oil production?

First and foremost, we should begin imagining the Bakken as a glass that’s already more than half empty. As Brown also points out, oil recovery rates currently range from 1 to 6 percent. In 2008 the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) assessed the Bakken and concluded that it contained up to 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable oil. The USGS is scheduled to complete a reassessment later in 2013, and its estimate of recoverable oil in the Bakken is almost certain to increase. As technology improves, recovery-rate percentages will grow as well. The website cites North Dakota government and industry estimates of recoverable oil ranging from 10 to 24 billion barrels.

To put the Bakken oil reserve in perspective, I think it’s helpful to create an extrapolation of exaggeration—that is, to consider how long Bakken crude would last if it were the only oil reserve from which the United States could draw.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration places current U.S. oil consumption at 6.87 billion barrels for 2011 and 7 billion barrels for 2010. At an average consumption rate of 6.9 billion barrels a year, 4.3 billion barrels of recoverable Bakken oil would last Americans less than one year. At 24 billion barrels, Americans would burn through the Bakken in about three and a half years. Even if all the Bakken oil were recoverable, it would last us for perhaps 24 years, or maybe as many as 73 years.

In short, the Bakken Formation developed throughout hundreds of millions of years, and we have the capacity to consume its oil in less than a century. That circumstance should cause us to pause. At some point, we’ll need to refill that emptying glass with renewable fuels, and the good news for North Dakota is that grass mixtures hold tremendous promise as the feedstock for advanced biofuels.

6. If this boom were to end as quickly as the last (which “collapsed so quickly when prices crashed that workers in the small city of Dickinson left the coffee in their cups when they quit their trailers,” Brown writes), what would be your primary concerns about what happens to the pumped-out and depleted land next?

My key concern actually involves what the consequences climate change will have on our region—economically, environmentally and socially. Predictions call for decreased soil moisture during the summer months; extreme events such as sporadic heavy precipitation, extended cold periods, and growing-season frosts; and the likelihood of invasive species and other new pests.

Fortunately, we have alternatives to the status quo—which are the most hopeful examples I could offer in conclusion. Instead of planting one crop per field, we can plant many crops in the same field and harvest the crops at the same time—crops yielding food, fiber and/or fuel. If those crops are perennials, then we won’t have to replant each year. The phrase “perennial polycultures” refers to this practice, which saves soil, reduces fuel consumption and creates a symbiotic relationship due to diversity. Research to make this vision a reality has been under way at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, for decades.

Likewise, we can use domesticated four-stomached animals such as cattle, sheep and goats to mimic how the great bison herds grazed the plains—one component of a concept called “holistic management.” The benefits of this method include enhanced grassland productivity and better water filtration and retention. Already, Allan Savory and his associates have proven the effectiveness of this technique, and many members of the North Dakota Grazing Lands Coalition are employing it.

(A note from Hulse: In the spirit of full disclosure, my wife and I own mineral acres in North Dakota’s Bottineau County, and while no oil discoveries have occurred on our land, we have leased our mineral acres for oil and gas exploration in the past and mostly likely will lease again. North Dakota laws dealing with how oil reserves are regulated via spacing units generally do not allow owners of mineral acres to forbid oil drilling. However, if I could choose, I’d prefer to receive income from renewable energy projects even if that money was less than from oil and gas production.)


Dean Hulse is author of Westhope: Life as a Former Farm Boy. He is a freelance writer and an activist for issues of land use, renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture. He lives in Fargo, North Dakota.

Westhope captures the workings of a farming family and community, and the ways people are linked by stories, food, and history. He also suggests the larger, invisible forces that make farming difficult and reveals both the rewards and the tensions inherent in that way of life. In the tradition of writers like Michael Pollan and Wendell Berry, Hulse points to a relationship to place based in knowledge of the land itself and how it sustains, and can be sustained by, human culture.”
—Kent Meyers, author of The Work of Wolves

One thought on “Sustainability and North Dakota’s oil boom

  1. Nicely done Dean. I'd like to add that the state of North Dakota is sacrificing the history of conflict for Dakota Territory, conflicts which are tertiary battles of the American Civil War. Sites like Killdeer Mountain and the running conflict in the Little Missouri River valley (even TR's Elkhorn Ranch) are disturbed or will be disturbed. Sacrificing the history of Killdeer (which only holds maybe 2.5 millions barrels of oil – the amount of which runs the US for about 4.5 hours) is no consolation for the amount of oil that will be extracted.

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