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What Fracking Means To One North Dakota Community

Published: April 1, 2014

Bill Gibson / A Fractured Community
Thousands of trucks continuously kick up massive amounts of dust, which creates dangerous conditions for one North Dakota community.

Fracking is a dirty business. To some, it’s a dirty word.

In 2012, Bill Gibson went to western North Dakota to research an article for Earth Island Journal. He saw what effect fracking—the fracturing of rock underground by a pressurized liquid—could have on a community, finding it has taken a personal toll on many.

“Above ground, people’s lives are being irrevocably harmed,” said Gibson, a professor of sociology at CSULB. “It is unlikely this will change in the next 10-20 years. What will happen after the oil and gas are gone can’t be totally determined, but right now, the rate of destruction is extremely high.”

The most obvious and visible assault on North Dakota’s Bakken Shale Territory are the oil well rigs—lots of them. They began appearing in 2006, and within a few years dominated the farming landscape. The industry plan is to go from 15,000 wells to roughly 50,000 during the next 15 years, according to Gibson. He thinks even that might be a conservative estimate.

“The people of western North Dakota are not uniformly opposed to the oil and gas industry,” said Gibson, “but they’re very much again the lack of accountability. And they stand very much against the speed and intensity of what is happening. The figure I heard is that this should be done over 100 years, instead of 15.”

According to a U.S. Geological Survey, the territory has a reservoir of up to 4 billion barrels of recoverable oil that would put it on par with Alaska’s North Slope. In 2012, North Dakota was producing about 660,000 barrels of oil a day, making it the second largest oil producing state behind Texas.

Another discernable sign of the industry’s presence are the trucks—lots of trucks, which can no way, no how go unnoticed. At approximately 1,000 truck trips per well, Gibson estimates that amounts to about 35 million trips over a 30-year period. With tractor-trailer rigs going up to 80 miles per hour, non-stop, 24 hours a day in many areas the impact on the roads is simply overbearing.

“The plan creates such intense land use that they will destroy everything well before they get to 50,000 wells,” said Gibson. “I’m just not sure the region can withstand it.”

When it comes to fracking, according to Gibson, the conventional thought is that building more wells is better than conventional coal mining and burning coal.

“In some ways yes, but it’s not a night-and-day contrast,” he said. “The entire natural gas infrastructure of wells and pipelines is so poorly constructed that it leaks massively. Methane is a green house gas 22 times more potent than carbon dioxide. On the ground this agrarian area has been turned into an industrial site. Thousands of trucks kick up massive amounts of dust, which is harmful to the people. And then the cattle have started coming down with what’s called ‘dust phenomena,’ where their lungs clog up with dust thrown up by the trucks, and they die.

“The trucks slow down on the side roads,” added Gibson, “but those roads are made of scoria, and it has a red dust. So as all these trucks go up and down these red pumice roads they crush that rock even more and send up continuous clouds of dust. When I talked to the people who lived out there, they said if you were on a rural route and had a mailbox on the side of the road it was usually full of this dust.”

Gibson said the intense dust combined with the non-stop truck traffic creates dangerous driving conditions for community members.

“I talked to a woman rancher about how she got on the road one day and the dust cloud was so thick she had to stop because there was zero visibility,” he said. “When the dust lifted enough so she could see, a tractor-trailer was right on top of her and it pulled off at the last moment. People get killed with great regularity.

“And people told me that social life in the surrounding areas had deteriorated because it was just too dangerous to drive to town on a Friday or Saturday night,” added Gibson, “that simply traffic was so bad people didn’t want to risk getting out on the highway.”

The traffic scenario wasn’t just hearsay for Gibson as he himself experienced the hazards of traversing those same roads first-hand.

“The driving was frightening, absolutely frightening,” he said. “I had to be hyper alert. It was frightening on the state highways because the speed was so great and on the county roads there was a lot of truck traffic, and those truck tires pick up rocks and throw them. People kept telling me they lost windshields routinely. They got the rear windshield on my rental car.”

And a nighttime drive through the area can be even more treacherous simply because it can get so very dark, said Gibson. The western North Dakota darkness, however, is dotted with well side flares going 24 hours a day and burning upwards of 500 million cubic feet of natural gas a day.

“At night it’s like driving through the gates of hell,” recalled Gibson. “It’s a demonic atmosphere. The wells and the flares are pretty close to people’s homes. If a flare goes out you’re in deep trouble, meaning the gas can simply drift into your house.”

In his Earth Island Journal article, Gibson tells the story of Brenda, a local who said the flare near her home did go out while away and she came back to house full of gas. It’s happened to her three times—so far.

“They’re afraid,” said Gibson. “The feeling of invasiveness permeates their lives; they can’t get away from it. They can’t get any peace, they have no solace anymore because this non-stop industrial machine is running 24/7. People there feel like they are being run over by the oil and natural gas industry and they can’t stop it. They feel like collateral damage and they are. I don’t think that’s an incorrect judgment at all.”

Of course, underground, fracking can create its own kind of a hell.

In some cases, wells fail, and in turn, fracking fluid spills over or blows out onto the land. That fluid is the mix of chemicals and water oil drillers use with intense pressure to break open the underground rock structures.

“Sometimes that process fails because fracking is an explosive grade force in terms of pounds per square inch,” said Gibson. “It’s 3,000-15,000 pounds per square inch and if you’re exercising that kind of force, it shouldn’t be surprising that thing don’t always go right.”

Gibson noted that the Bakken Territory bumps up to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and there’s this constant worry that the drilling is going to begin within sight of Roosevelt’s original ranch and would directly intrude upon the park in the very near future.

“I think it’s important that we understand what we are doing to our own country,” said Gibson. “It may be western North Dakota, but it’s still the United States.”

Asked what President Roosevelt might think of what’s taking place in western North Dakota, Gibson responded, “I think he would say that we as a people and as a government had failed to protect the land.”