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North Dakota's Landscape Energized [Photos]

What does oil independence look like? Those living and working in North Dakota's booming Bakken oil field are seeing firsthand
train in North Dakota



Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

WILLISTON, N.D. – In the spring of 1805 Lewis and Clark and their expedition paddled up the Missouri River's middle valley, terra incognita to Americans then and still largely unknown to Americans today. As they worked against the current, a dramatic panorama unfolded, as Meriwether Lewis would write in his journal on April 25, 1805: 

I had a most pleasing view of the country, perticularly of the wide and fertile vallies formed by the missouri and the yellowstone rivers, which occasionally unmasked by the wood on their borders disclose their meanderings for many miles in their
passage through these delightfull tracts
of country.

The delightful tracts would not stay so for long.

After Lewis and Clark returned home, the Mandan and Minitari (or Hidatsa) natives and other tribes whose aid made the expedition a success suffered greatly from disease and Army invasions. By 1881 the region had become Dakota Territory; eight years later, settled by white ranchers and farmers growing wheat and sugar beets, it became North Dakota.

The Corps of Engineers blocked the Missouri with the Garrison Dam in 1952, inundating the valley Lewis and Clark had paddled.

In the 1950s, oil was also discovered just north of the Missouri River near Tioga, N.D. At first this was not a boom – it took more than five years to develop just 10 wells in North Dakota's Bakken shale formation. There were only 1,000 by 2009. But the current boom, thanks to hydraulic fracturing, more than lives up to its name: The Bakken now has more than 6,600 wells, and the state is adding up to 200 each month.

The Bakken's development has transformed the domestic energy debate. The field, the largest oil formation in the United States, produced over 908,000 barrels a day in November – more than double the rate just two years ago. Together with natural gas fracking in the East, the United States is closer to energy independence than any time in the past 40 years. Congress is considering lifting a ban on oil exports in place since the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s.

But with the rush came runaway population growth, severe housing and school shortages, crime and other disruptions in what had been mostly empty agricultural country. The social, labor and financial challenges for western North Dakota have been substantial.

Also a challenge: Getting the product to refiners. The main route out of the Bakken is via rail tank cars, but concerns about the safety of rail transport abound, ignited by July's fatal tank car disaster in Lac-Megantic, Quebec, that killed 47 and by a December crash in North Dakota that forced almost 2,400 people from their homes. With the Bakken's growth have come increased protests over fossil fuel rail traffic across the West.

I traveled through the Bakken in late fall last year with environmental scientist Joan Rothlein, for our ongoing series about energy and climate change in the West. We photographed and documented some of the scenes and issues in this fast changing region.


Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

Time and changes on the prairie. An abandoned school near Williston N.D. is neighbor to an active oil well. The economic boom has brought industrial development and pollution threats to a once quiet rural region of the upper Midwest.

Ranchers said that in response, some older residents are leaving. Other people are making money, taking petroleum jobs, leasing oil sites and selling freshwater needed to make fracking fluid and maintain the active wells. And still other North Dakotans are giving voice to environmental concerns.


Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

At least five oil well sites line this county road west of Williston and continue into the distance. Red scoria gravel drill pads are being laid down at a rate of 200 a month. Access for this is frequently along new roads that ranchers say are cutting through prairie. The Bakken shale formation extends under about 15,000 square miles of western North Dakota and parts of Montana, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Total untapped reserves estimated by the U.S. Geological Survey: 7.4 billion barrels of oil.


Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

Trucks, tanks and 24-hour work abound at a new well site where water and fine sand will fracture, or "frack" the shale. More than two million gallons of water and three million pounds of sand are used per well, according to North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.

Wells cost about $9 million to complete and petroleum engineers expect a 30-year to 45-year flow of oil via lateral drilling in multiple directions. But continuous need for washing out salty drilling water means wells may use more than three times the initial amount of freshwater – that's roughly six million more gallons per well – and put huge additional pressure on aquifers and drinking water wells. North Dakota does not require freshwater testing during oil drilling.


                                            Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

The high-decibel, screeching roar of this gas flare blasting from a pipe at an oil well is repeated at more than 1,500 wells across the Bakken – throwing off enough light to be seen from orbiting satellites.

Oil companies are given much leeway to burn off this mostly-methane gas because there is capacity to capture and process only about two-thirds of it. Three times more gas is flared now than three years ago.

Oil companies are experimenting with on-pad gas compressors and processors to separate the butane and propane from the methane. There are plans to use natural gas as railroad fuel, in the manufacture of fertilizer and to impose more royalties on the gas. But so far they are just that: plans.


Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

Stacks of steel pipe are ready to add to the 17,500 miles of petroleum pipelines in North Dakota. Almost 2,500 miles of pipeline were added in 2012 to capture methane, carry off wastewater and transport oil.

Huge questions about pipeline maintenance and oversight spurted into public awareness in 2013 when journalists revealed a 20,600-barrel crude pipeline spill in a wheat field north of Tioga, which went unreported by industry and state officials for 11 days. Health Department officials said no water or environmental damage had been caused. But the Associated Press went on to find 750 more small unreported leaks and spills since January 2012.


Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

An oil boom is also a job boom. North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation at 2.6 percent. Petroleum, engineering and construction workers are flooding into the Bakken for the high pay, and more than half the state's employment growth in those jobs took place in Williams County, with the town of Williston at the boom's center.

Although 10,000 jobs of all kinds have been added in the county since 2009, there are help wanted signs up at many service, retail, school and even health employers in Williston, according to the Oil and Gas Reporter. In 2011 Williston issued new building permits worth more than twice the value of those in Fargo, which has six times the population. Williston is growing at more than 8 percent a year.


Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

"Agriculture ran our state forever. Now, it's oil." Out for an early evening meeting in a café, Renae Evensvold and Kristin Mesker are ranchers and farmers north of Tioga. Renae (left), a biologist who previously worked for the federal National Resources Conservation Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service, grows wheat and raises 300 head of cattle on 2,000 acres with her husband and family.

Kristin, here with one of her two children, co-owns 1,500 acres with her husband and leases more pasture for their 500 cattle. "We have friends, neighbors and family working for the oil fields," Renae said, noting the tally included her husband for some time.

But the changes – heavy traffic, loss of nearby stockyards, smog and dust from drilling, growing waste ponds and pits and the pressures on the schools from temporary worker families – have strengthened their environmental commitment. "The state is permitting things so fast and so furiously," Renae said, "that there's no way they can enforce regulations."


Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

No Vacancy: In Tioga, a trailer park spills over into a wetland in the shadow of a large Hess gas processing plant. Williston, the county seat, has grown 50 percent from 12,000 people to more than 18,500 since 2006. Housing is tight and high-priced, sewer and water systems are straining, and some communities don't have enough restaurants or gas stations to serve the new residents.

Many oil workers come alone and live in construction housing known as "man camps," making it hard to know how many people are in the area. Environmental ranchers Renae Evensvold and Kristin Mesker think man camps are better than the more invasive permanent hotels and apartments springing up. But, says Kristin, "these are workers who take their money out of state."


Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

Tanker trucks and construction traffic backing up in the tiny town of Ray, N.D., are another symptom of the Bakken oil boom. Heavy truck traffic has thundered in during the past four years to build and service more than 5,400 wells.

Each new oil rig site requires 2,300 round trips, according to a 2012 state assessment of county road needs. Dumptrucks for gravel; 18 wheelers for supplies, water, waste, drilling mud, pipe, fuel, cement and oil; flatbeds for excavators and rig equipment – plus hundreds of trips in work trucks and pickups.

Rancher Kristin Mesker called driving the roads now "suicide," and said traffic makes it harder to get her cattle to market. Some 270 miles of road were built or improved in 2013 alone just in the Williston area.


Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

Epping, N.D., is a tiny picturesque village of fewer than 100 people on a rail spur with some restored buildings housing a museum and a wheat elevator at the end of the street. But since Crestwood Midstream Partners' oil loading facility was built three years ago, long oil trains dominate the tracks rather than grain hopper cars.

Ranchers feel the effects: When it is time to ship their wheat, according to Renae Evensvold, "cars for wheat are slowed because oil cars have priority." If elevator silos reach capacity because of a lack of wheat cars, then the farmers have to truck the wheat themselves to a distant silo at an additional cost of around 30 cents per bushel.


Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

The new neighbor at the end of a very quiet street in Epping, N.D., is an industrial park. In 2010, this oil loading area was just an open field. Now the oil facility loads 120,000 barrels of oil per day, about 168 tank cars' worth. It's already scheduled for expansion.

Regional railroads, principally BNSF, are on board with dedicated 100-car oil trains, the principal way that Bakken oil reaches refineries. More than 640,000 barrels a day of the crude were being pumped into rail cars this year across the region.


Photo Credit: © 2013 Gary Braasch / World View of Global Warming.org

The American Association of Railroads reports that nationally about 400,000 railcars of oil were delivered in 2013 – up from only 11,000 in 2009. Most Bakken oil is going to refineries in the East and Louisiana; BNSF reports that it averages a little more than one train a day from North Dakota to Northwestern refineries.

More growth is on the horizon. There are 11 expanding or proposed Northwest coast ports and refineries which could accept up to 800,000 barrels a day of oil – about 11 100-car trains arriving daily. The new oil port proposals are under study and public hearing process and being challenged by a coalition of environmental and health groups.

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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