Oil and Water

Written by Pam Garrettson
Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pam Garrettson.I never thought I would say the words “traffic jam,” and “North Dakota” in the same sentence, but that’s what happened to us last week as we traveled south on what was once a very remote stretch of highway 22 that runs through the badlands between New Town and Dickinson. Oil and gas production has changed the area dramatically; in places it looked like pictures of the Middle East. The rugged buttes are still breathtaking, when you can see around the highway widening operations that teetered on the edge of sheer drops. Brent deftly dodged streams of huge trucks carrying oil or the water used to pump it out of the ground, and I just marveled at how so much had changed since I was last out here in 2007.

We were headed back from our last air-ground segment north of the town of Garrison, our last in North Dakota. Because of a quirk in survey design, it is actually east of the Missouri River, so it has the natural wetlands that our west-river segments generally lack. Although it too was drier than normal, and many wetland basins were dry or low, this segment had more water than any we had surveyed. Blue-winged teal rule east-river, and we saw quite a few on the Garrison transect. Mallards, northern shovelers, and American widgeon lead the pack elsewhere.

In the western Dakotas, fossils are everywhere, and not just in the oil and gas that has turned the area from bust to boom. The most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered was excavated near Faith, SD. All the buildings in an entire block of the town of Lemmon, SD, are built from the petrified wood that is common throughout the area, including on one of our survey segments. Here, these fragments of mineralized ancient trees are the nuisance rocks that farmers pick to clear their fields (see photo). Not surprisingly, the Dickinson newspaper reported that the next big oil field cuts a swath through these areas.

The oil and gas boom in North Dakota is a huge, complex story, environmentally, socially and economically. I can’t do it justice, but would recommend this National Geographic article for starters. When I looked at our duck survey truck parked next to ones with Haliburton or Fractec logos, I wanted to feel morally superior. I wanted to think of myself as one of the good guys in the white hats. But then I thought about how much diesel we have burned doing this survey, and how much all of us Americans love our energy. And I thought about the guys with muddy boots and weary eyes lined up 15 deep at the Cennex with Red Bull and hoagies to get them through another 14-hour day. They might have lived in their car or an RV through a North Dakota winter to pay bills back home. I thought about the law enforcement officer who told me he was in town to train overwhelmed police departments to deal with increased violence against women. Looked at in perspective, it’s difficult to see many white or black hats. There is a lot of gray to go around.

Petrified wood can be found all over.  There is even some old house foundations made out of it.

Petrified wood can be found all over. There is even some old house foundations made out of it. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

The amount of growth the oil fields are creating is astounding.

The amount of growth the oil fields are creating is astounding. Photo by Brent West, US FWS

Man made stock dams provide most of the water in dry years.

Man made stock dams provide most of the water in dry years. Photo by Brent West, US FWS