North Dakota Oil Diary: "People around here need to be ready to change"

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I drove from Minneapolis to Minot, North Dakota, this year as a late spring snowstorm was brewing. Interstate 94, near the state line, closed down and the two lane highways and farm roads snaking westward were covered in hard ice and occasional, demonic flurries of drifting snow. I concocted a route around the storm with some helpful farmers at a gas station. My car limped west then north, west then north, on a maze of empty back roads.

At the edge of the storm was the beginning of the huge expanse of high prairie, northwest of Jamestown, North Dakota, where the landscape that starts to whisper of the badlands begins. Swaths of cultivated farmland give way to barren, flat expanses; prairie stretches on, with nothing dotting the horizon, toward where the earth breaks gracefully around the Missouri River.

» View a slideshow of photos from North Dakota
August 1, 2008: A looming fuel crisis leads to a boon for North Dakotans
July 23, 2008: Documentary filmmaker tracks an oil boom in North Dakota

I remember this westward journey well. As a kid, in Minnesota, one of the most exciting trips I ever took started late in the evening at the Amtrak station in St. Paul and ended early the next morning at the depot in Minot. The gentle lull of farmland gliding past your window hypnotizes you. You doze off in that delight of delights, an overnight train sleeping berth all to yourself, and you wake, groggy-eyed, a little motion sick, to find that rows of corn have silently given way to the huge skies and faded hills of the west.

When I heard earlier this year that there was oil under these very hills and skies, it surprised and intrigued me. This isn't a part of the country that you associate with oil derricks and the monotonous creak of pump jacks. I'd spent time in west Texas, seen the petroleum museums and ghost-like main streets, heard tell of the extravagance of a boom and the heartbreak of a bust. If there really was a boom picking up steam in North Dakota, I wondered what it would look like, especially in a part of the country that isn't easily ruffled.

North Dakotans are no nonsense; they keep their hands close to their vests. This part of the former Dakota Territories was settled a little over a hundred years ago by the back-breaking, grinding hard work of homesteaders scratching out a living from the unforgiving land. It was the toughest Germans and Scandinavian immigrants who pushed north and west of the Mississippi from Minneapolis, leaving behind their "softer" kin to establish southern Minnesota's farms and grain mills.

At the courthouse in Stanley, North Dakota, where landmen hired by oil companies look through generations of mineral rights, I met an elderly man who runs his own laminating business. His wife and adult son work with him, and they'd traveled west like me, trailing the boom. His family had been called in to laminate and repair the huge, decades-old books of land deeds in courthouses. The books were beginning to fall apart after all the handling by oil company reps day in and day out. The laminator told me that he likes to look through old birth and death records in the county courthouses where he works. In North Dakota, he said, he'd found startlingly high numbers of suicides, especially during the winter. For some of the newly arrived immigrants, even resilient Norwegians and Swedes, the long dark months on the high plains proved too much.

In all my time spent at cafés in small towns, though, North Dakotans quietly reminded me of their ability to persist. "We've seen this before," they told me, explaining that the current boom is not the region's first rodeo with oil. Since the first wells started pumping in North Dakota in the 1950s, the state has rode the petroleum roller coaster, running flush with private wealth and state revenue during boom times and experiencing devastating dry-ups when the oil couldn't be reached.

Now, though, I noticed a sense that this boom might be it — a little bigger, a little more high-profile, and a little more important in the context of today's global energy conversation. Hopefully, from the locals' perspective, this also means a little more sustainable.

Everyone in state government is saying so, and everyone I met who lives in the area hopes so.

There are no millionaire beachside condo owners like in Southern California, complaining about possible offshore oil spills. No one is trying to save the spotted owl. This is mostly forgotten and barren land, and it always has been. This is one of the least populated and least protected parts of the country. The only national park in the region is on the southern edge of Bakken formation territory, where the bonanza of oil lies.

It takes the most complex and sophisticated technology the oil industry can come up with to reach the tough Bakken shale, two miles underground and locked in low porosity rock. But, as long as oil prices stay high and the industry continues to infuse money into the kind of drilling and fracturing the Bakken demands, North Dakotans see a boom that they may be able to trust this time. No one is sure exactly how much things will change, but everyone agrees that change is underway, and most think it's not a bad thing.

While the last thing a North Dakotan will do is brag to you about mineral rights and a royalty deal with an oil company, possibility is buzzing everywhere. A mother and daughter I met at a café in the town of Stanley told me the problem is not that people will start showing off new wealth. The problem is that they won't. "People around here need to be ready to change," they said. "People can't be afraid of change. We've been losing young people in this area for years — now is our chance to bring people back here, to give them a reason to stay here."

I was in and around Minot for three days at the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference, talking to people from the oil industry and state government in between trips out to the surrounding small towns. The morning I left, it was cold and gray, looking like another unseasonal storm might whip up and lash the plains one more time before conceding spring. On the way out of town, Dawson Dunning, a filmmaker from Montana and my cameraman on the trip, noticed the Ward County courthouse, where window washers were working beneath a quote carved starkly into the stone building. It is from Daniel Webster, the great 19th century orator, and it reads:

"Let us develop the resources of our land, call forth its powers, build up its institutions and promote all its great interests."

A hundred and fifty years later, northwestern North Dakota is ready to heed his words.

— Caitlin McNally