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Why am I Going to North Dakota?

You may have seen the news reports last fall: For the first time in nearly two decades, the U.S. pumped more oil from the ground here than it imported from elsewhere. A lot of that was because of horizontal drilling and a process known as hydraulic fracturing, in which water and chemicals are pumped into the ground under high pressure to break up the earth and let the oil move toward the well. The technology has cranked up production in some places that have long been leaders, such as Texas, California, and Oklahoma. But North Dakota?

There were oil rushes in the Roughrider State in the 1950s and 1980s, but nothing like what has swept across the prairie in the northwest corner of North Dakota since 2008. Across the Bakken Formation, the big shale bowl that is holding the oil underground, more than 4,000 new wells have been drilled in the past six years. This spring, as temperatures rise, roads firm up, and the work gets back into high gear, seventy percent of all active rigs (and there are hundreds) are working in McKenzie County, which sits beneath a long arc of the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea, formed when a dam was built in the 1950s. This map shows where the rigs – drilling wells for such companies as Hess, Petro-Hunt, Whiting Oil, Burlington Resources, Continental Resources, XTO, and others – are working this week. You can take an interactive tour of wells, rigs and more in the region at this website, produced by the Oil and Gas Division of the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources.

Wells on the prairie

Wells on the prairie

What all this has done to a long-quiet place is a complicated story, which includes millionaire farmers, among those who  maintain mineral rights, and others who see little, other than damage payments for oil wells drilled on their farm land. It brings questions about water quality and gas flaring in a rural place, which is less and less rural as thousands of workers roll into the area. Watford City, the center of McKenzie County, was home to 1,400 people just six years ago. Now, local officials estimate there are more than 10,000 living in town. Schools are crowded. The police are stretched thin. Roads are feeling the crush. Call up anyone in that part of the country on the telephone and within a few sentences you’ll hear one particular word: “traffic.” As one longtime rancher told me by phone the other day: “It’s not a boom anymore. It’s a business.”

So off I go to walk amid it all and take stock of what is happening in a place that fuels our energy appetite.


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