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Frack to the Future

Can small-town North Dakota survive an oil boom?

Jun 24, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 39 • By MICHAEL WARREN
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Williston, N.D.
It was about 25 years ago, Dave Hynek figures, when his Aunt Doris died. The granddaughter of Norwegian and Czechoslovakian homesteaders, Doris was born and raised on a farm in the small town of Stanley in northwestern North Dakota. The region was settled by immigrants from northern and central Europe, mainly Norway and Germany. The prairie here is ideal for growing short, hardy grains like wheat and barley​—​but not much else​—​and for ranching cattle. For a hundred years, these hardworking new Americans and their descendants were the only folks who braved the harsh wind, freezing winters, and austere life of North Dakota.



Some left, including Doris. After graduating from high school, she moved to Los Angeles, where she got married and lived her entire adult life. When she died (young, at the age of 45), arrangements were made to have her buried back home, in the Stanley cemetery. Her husband, a native Californian named Joe, traveled to North Dakota for the funeral and stayed at Hynek’s farmhouse. Hynek, 66 years old and a commissioner for Mountrail County, recalls a change in Joe’s demeanor after being in Stanley for three days.

“I could see that he was becoming agitated or nervous,” he tells me, his eyes narrowing. “He was not comfortable like he was when he first got here two days prior. I asked him, ‘Joe, what’s the deal? You look kind of ill at ease here. What’s going on?’ And he looked me square in the eye and he said, ‘I can’t stand the quiet.’ ”

Hynek, wearing a plaid flannel shirt, blue jeans, and large-framed glasses, leans back slowly in his chair. He lets Joe’s words sit a moment. Then he continues.

“Over the last several years, I’ve been thinking to myself, ‘Uncle Joe, you’d fit right in.’ ”

Today, Stanley is anything but quiet. There’s a nearly constant roar of diesel engines as tanker trucks haul oil barrels down Route 2. The Cenex gas station and truck stop in Stanley, once a lonely outpost for the occasional truck driver or farmer, is full of customers. Even on a rainy morning, the sound of power tools echoes from the new mid-rise hotel being constructed across the street. The Subway next door, only a few weeks old, has a line out the door by noon. The people waiting, young and old, chat with one another about job openings (“Hess is hiring in Tioga”), where they’re living (in a busted RV, at the Microtel), where they come from (every place from Louisiana to Alaska), and how they ended up in this forgotten corner of the country. Where there once was silence there’s now a hum.

That hum is fueled entirely by oil. Since 2007, petroleum production in North Dakota has increased 600 percent, nearly all of it coming from the Bakken shale formation underneath most of the western third of the state (as well as parts of Alberta and neighboring Montana). Locals say the geologists had been promising for years that the North Dakota Bakken probably contained an unimaginable wealth of the black stuff. The locals were suspicious, particularly since the last two oil booms, in the 1950s and 1980s, ended in crippling busts. The discovery of a major oil field in eastern Montana in 2000, where the earth above the Bakken rock is the thinnest, was more evidence of treasure to be found in North Dakota. The problem was one of access, since the North Dakota reserves were much deeper beneath the surface​—​about two miles down, as it turns out​—​and encased in solid shale and sandstone.

That’s where new technology stepped in. By 2008, engineers had developed a more efficient, cheaper way to drill into the Bakken and other thick rock formations containing petroleum and natural gas. Hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) revolutionized the energy industry, and in North Dakota it works something like this: A well is drilled vertically into the ground, followed by miles of piping. When the drill and pipe hit the Bakken shale, they curve horizontally, drilling through the upper layer of rock into the middle of the formation. A water-based fluid is then shot down into the pipe. When the extremely pressurized fluid reaches the Bakken, the rock fractures, releasing the embedded oil back up the pipe. The well is active and ready to pump barrels of that sweet, sweet crude.

The benefits of fracking go beyond its ability to reach the previously inaccessible. The technological advances in horizontal drilling mean a well on the surface can be placed miles away from a deposit of oil that might lie beneath a functioning farm or ranch. And the use of the technology in exploration is only begetting more knowledge about what exactly lies below the surface.

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