August 26, 2012

Lori Orser--Big Changes in North Dakota

North Dakota has always been a sparsely populated state relying mainly on farming and ranching and providing services for those farmers and ranchers. Even before Europeans arrived here, the river tribes of Arikara, Mandan and Hidatsa farmed North Dakota while nomadic peoples, the Dakota, Cheyenne and Assiniboine, relied on the farming of others to supplement hunting.
In the 1930s, when ‘wildcat’ drillers found oil around Tioga, in the western part of the state, change came. The discovery couldn’t be called a boom as many of the wells were dry. The drilling stopped before WWII and didn’t start again until the late 1980s but still not on a large scale. 
In the 21st century, came another change that spurred a growing river of an oil rush. Oil geologists discovered a deep stratum of oil shale named the Bakken formation.  Extracting the pockets of oil from the fractures in the shale required a process and, once a method was agreed on, the oil rush was on.  
The procedure, called fracking, pumps water down a well shaft to push the oil up. Some of that liquid stays underground while some rises and is confined in pools. Fracking liquid is not just water. It is water with a variety of chemicals and it’s highly toxic. Oil companies deny this, but it gets into both soil and fresh water aquifers, and can kill, not only plants and wildlife, but people. As a much debated subject, my view is that there must be a better method.
This oil-induced change spurred population growth. Over 10,000 people, mainly single men, have moved here to work on the rigs mostly in the western part of the state, which includes the Badlands.  The available apartments and houses were filled by the population boom, as were motels and hotels. The oil companies started building Man Camps, barrack-like compounds built outside of small towns, using town services and infrastructures. Roads, not built for the amount of traffic or heavy equipment use are literally falling apart.
Adding to the problem is that the western part of the state is dry; that’s one of the reasons it’s so sparsely populated. Because of the strain for communities on roads, sewer systems and the like, some towns and counties have been passing laws to ban man camps in their jurisdictions prompting people, working in the oil fields, to travel as far east as Minot and Bismarck.
There are more active drilling rigs in North Dakota than in any state except Texas and, while the people of North Dakota were promised new jobs, most of the actual oil workers are from out of state.  North Dakotans work in construction jobs, building new housing, hotels, apartments, restaurants and stores.  Because of the shift, we’re not getting a lot of high-paying jobs.  Though North Dakota still has the lowest unemployment rate in the country, and also holds one of the few balanced budgets with a rainy day surplus, the benefits sometimes seem to equal the disadvantages.
Since it’s expected that an additional 50,000 people will move here, better infrastructure will be needed and, as population increases, so comes the need for more and better services. Some think the state’s budget surplus should be spent on roads and bridges.
Others seek a different option. A tax is collected from the oil companies. That tax goes to the state and the state government gives a percentage back to the counties impacted by the oil. In most oil-producing states, including our neighbor Montana, a large portion of the tax is passed to the impacted counties. There’s no reason that shouldn’t happen here. The problem being, an exceptionally conservative government that insists we hold onto that money because we might really need it someday. My opinion is, the counties need it now--they needed it last year.
Then there’s the question of getting the oil to refineries. Currently it’s being hauled in trucks to Texas. There is a pipeline planned, the XL Keystone Pipeline, that so far is only in Canada and part of Texas.  Environmentalists are fighting tooth and nail to stop construction because of the damage it would do to the boreal forest in Canada, and to all of the land it goes through.  There is a possibility of leaks along the way. Pipelines seem to leak wherever they are though we only hear about the worst incidents.
There is one refinery in North Dakota, located in Mandan. One gubernatorial candidate thinks that North Dakota needs another refinery, perhaps a state refinery. In that opinion, a state refinery would keep more oil in North Dakota providing more profit to the state and perhaps eliminating the alleged need for the Keystone pipeline.
While many of us don’t like the occurring changes to our state, they seem occur like a runaway train, or, like in the days before development, a stampede of bison. It seems there’s nothing we can do to stop, in our opinion, the wrong type of progress. Some think oil is largely, though incorrectly, viewed as the necessary fuel, so we continue to attempt to put a stop to pipeline construction though fleets of trucks hauling oil, or refined oil products, across the country are equally unsafe.
All I feel I can do is sit back and watch, and frankly, I don’t like what I see. It’s said that change is the only certainty, and I can’t stop it.  It’s making me miss my old, quiet state.

Lori L. Orser was born in Bismarck, North Dakota, and has lived much of her life there. Among her fondest memories are those from the time she spent visiting her grandparents in Rugby, North Dakota, and going with them to the cabin her grandfather built on Lake Metigoshe in the 1930s. Lake Metigoshe, cupped in Turtle Mountain with shoreline in both the U.S. and Canada, plays a significant role in much of Lori's fiction.  Visit her here:

(Pictures provided by  northdakotatourism .  Opinions provided by author.)


  1. Have to agree, the short-term economic benefits of continued dependence on oil are far out-weighed by the enormous consequences of fracking and other environmental concerns created by the process.

  2. Thanks for the historical perspective of North Dakota, a place I've only visited through the movie Fargo. Lot's of luck with your writing and stay warm.

  3. You point out a problem that is happening over many states in the union including my own in North Carolina. The vote to perform fracking was passed by one vote here...a sad day for us.
    North Dakota is such a beautiful place--kinda cold in the winter, but beautiful. I hear that Big Foot lives there. LOL My sister, his son and grandaughter took a road trip last summer and visited North Dakota. They loved it there.
    I wish you all the best.

  4. What an informative post. I do so wish oil had not been found. We need to explore other ways.
    debby236 at gmail dot com

  5. Welcome to the 50 Authors/States family, Lori! I'm looking forward to meeting you finally at the WWW conference!


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