Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

North Dakota: The Rise of an American Petrostate

North Dakota is suing Minnesota, alleging the Land of 10,000 Lakes is discriminating against it because it is black. Lignite black. Lignite coal black. The lawsuit contends that the Next Generation Energy Act—a law signed in 2007 by Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty, which limits the amount of power Minnesota utilities can acquire from new fossil-fuel plants—violates the commerce clause of the Constitution. The federal rules, the suit argues, should force Minnesota to buy more of North Dakota's coal-fired power. The EPA, the suit argues, is the only authority whose regulations should matter.

Most experts have scoffed at the suit. But it's made all the more bizarre by the fact that participant North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is also currently party to the legal challenge to "Obamacare," which accuses the feds of attempting to "usurp the general police power reserved to the States."

The AG's hypocritical participation in the coal lawsuit exemplifies how North Dakota is slowly becoming a proxy petrostate base of operations for the energy industry to launch a war against federal regulation.

On November 2nd, the North Dakota AG issued a "fact sheet" on the Next Generation Energy Act, which is a gem of Big Energy passive-aggression. It calls the law "purely a symbolic gesture that could only have a negligible impact toward actually achieving the purpose of reducing greenhouse gases on a global scale." When it mentions global warming, it puts the term quote marks.

The document concludes with a line that is 100-percent "Minnesota Nice": "As Minnesota seeks to rebuild its economy, it will need energy." It then goes on to, more of less, call Minnesotans too dumb to know what's for good for them. And that's essentially what the lawsuit boils down to: one state telling another state it's too stupid to know what's good for it.

In the press, the Attorney General didn't even bother with the passive-aggression, telling the Star Tribune, "With all respect to regulators in Minnesota, we love our environment more than they do."

* * *

A recent viral video stitching together time-lapse footage from the International Space Station wowed viewers with a view of earth never seen before. But what everyone missed except one eagle-eyed writer at Midwest Energy News was that the video featured the glowing lights of one "enormous 'city' in the middle of nowhere." That "city," Ken Paulman discovered, was in fact the fires of natural gas being flared off from thousands of wells in the Bakken oil shale formation. Without a pipeline nearby, 35 percent of all natural gas produced from oil extraction is flared. In a region where average daily temperatures this time of year range from 3 to (a high of) 24 degrees (before wind chill), the sight of a frozen landscape blazing with "Dakota candles" is truly apocalyptic.

The Bakken formation stretches from Montana through western North Dakota through Saskatchewan. The heart is near Williston, North Dakota, a town that has gone from a population of around 12,000 to 20,000 in just a few years. When a new Motel 6 opened last week, Hallibuton immediately offered to rent the entire thing. By the end of next year, North Dakota will be the nation's number two oil producer. Every month, the state sets a new record for output. The U.S. Energy Information Administration animated map of Bakken drilling activity between 1985 and 2010 is shocking.

Thanks to advances in a process called horizontal drilling, and the growth of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as an extraction process, the hard-to-reach oil of the Bakken is now affordable to extract. The absolute best source of exactly how this process works is an industry video.

What the video doesn't mention is exactly what chemical mix goes into fracking fluid. It doesn't mention that intentionally, of course. A Clean Water Act Safe Drinking Water Act exemption (called the "Haliburton loophole") allows fracking fluid recipes to remain undisclosed as a proprietary secret. Kind of like Coca-Cola's secret recipe, if that secret recipe contained poison and was being injected near drinking water.

Questions about the safety of fracking are widespread, ranging from tapwater that catches fire and mutating farm animals to simple unpleasant odors and the unsightliness of towering gas flares. It remains to be seen how dangerous it is; it's certainly not good for the earth.

But then, a lot of human activity—maybe most—is not good for the earth. The glowing screen upon which this text currently hovers takes power. Where is that power going to come from? Things Americans like (and like more and more) require power. As for oil, North Dakotan skepticism about a new fuel revolution is well-founded, especially in personal experience. Cell phone batteries struggle to respond on January days in Grand Forks, why would an electric car be any different? (Psst. They aren't.)

This is to say nothing of how North Dakota's drive to drag the nation to some semblance of energy independence and better job numbers (those roughnecks making six figures all pay federal income taxes) inspires associated economic development elsewhere. To supply fracking operations, fine silica sand mining is booming in states like Wisconsin, bringing jobs (and associated concerns.) Duluth, Minnesota, is hoping fracking will lead to more work for its port.

This is why fracking will continue and why the Environmental Protection Agency is about to release new guidance for states to use when issuing fracking well permits. Not to get into the boring technicalities, but the rules concern the use of diesel fuel in the fracking slurry, a measure especially necessary when fracking in extremely cold regions. North Dakota, as noted, can be cold. Cue the sky falling.

During his "oops" debate moment, Texas Governor Rick Perry joked that one federal agency he would eliminate was the EPA. When asked if he was joking, the governor said, no, it only needed to "be rebuilt." But guaranteed, in the fellow oil-state of North Dakota, cheers erupted at the thought.

In 2010, Lynn Helms, the director of the state's Department of Mineral Resources and the gatekeeper to North Dakota's oil, said in a weekly address that "the threat of federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing has diminished." Jump ahead nearly two years and Helms, backed by most of the state's top politicians, is banging the EPA bogeyman drum. In November, Helms was quoted in the Bismarck Tribune speculating that the EPA was "on track to stop fracking as soon as January." Naturally, everyone freaked out.

It should be noted that Helms is a former Hess oil executive. That's the North Dakota equivalent of the Goldman Sachs-U.S. Treasury relationship.

Later, Helms more or less called the reporter a liar. A regional administrator for the EPA penned a follow up piece for the Tribune, writing that Helms' claim was "grounded in inaccurate information and is misleading." (The piece was run in the op-ed section.)

Many in North Dakota sought further "assurances" than the word of the EPA. In a recent flood-relief and highway patrol bill, Governor Jack Dalrymple even included a million dollars to pay for a potential lawsuit against the EPA over new fracking regulations.

The industry is seeking even more assurances by turning the entire state of North Dakota into its proxy.

The candidates for national office coming out of North Dakota are beholden to the state's energy industry hydra. Republican Representative Rick Berg, who replaced the Democrat Earl Pomeroy in 2011, is now running for the Senate seat being vacated by the state's single remaining federal Democrat, Kent Conrad. Berg regularly speaks out against the EPA and has supported fracking for oil in Teddy Roosevelt National Park as a way to pay for Social Security. After the EPA stated it would not suspend fracking, Rep. Berg stated his distrust, adding, "What we need to do is we need to ensure that the states are going to regulate this." (Like Minnesota did.)

"What threatens to SHUTDOWN the Bakken," hollers the website of State Representative Bette Grande, a Republican native of Williston, running herself to replace Rick Berg. There is no question mark and the only two click options available are "Federal Government" and "The EPA." As if the two were different.

Grande, who now lives in and represents Fargo (330 miles from the fracking in Williston), recently launched the campaign which won the Orwell Grave-Roll Doublethink Award for 2012, with its motto "Let's Save the Bakken." When Grande implores "We can protect the Bakken!" what she means is that we can save the Bakken from government regulation (hint: "The EPA"). She calls the state's oil industry "over-regulated" and has called the EPA the "Employment Prevention Agency." In Grande's view, as with many others who have bought the federal regulations boogeyman story, the EPA wants to shut down oil production because it has a personal grudge against North Dakota. Even among North Dakota's pro-oil, anti-EPA candidiates (which include most Democrats), Grande stands out in her desire to turn North Dakota into a de-facto petrostate.

It's noteworthy that State oil director Helms' position on the EPA is simply that it needs oversight by those elected to Congress. (You know: politicians like Grande and Berg.)

It's the sort of enthusiasm displayed by Grande that is most worrisome to many North Dakotans. Like any sane, realistic, reasonable people, most residents understand that fracking, and the energy industry as a whole, are an economic necessity for a state whose other industries (such as defense) rely on the exact kind of federal subsidies that are increasingly falling out of favor. But the gung-ho sentiment that an endeavor like fracking is somehow almost "good" for the plains is absurd. It's an attitude that leaves many wishing for former Governor Art Link, who died last year at the age of 96. Link, who served from 1973 to 1980 in the heart of North Dakota's first oil and coal boom, is most famous for "When the Landscape is Quiet Again" his passionate 1973 address pleading for a measured approach to energy development.

North Dakotans may be seen as rubes, and many may actually be, but even a rube knows injecting tons of poisonous chemicals into the earth is, at best, only moderately dangerous. This is to say nothing of the ancillary "benefits" the energy boom is bringing to the state, such as massive jumps in crime, $7-a-gallon milk, and elderly residents thrown out of their apartments as rents skyrocket. Massive "man camps" that house rig workers come with the expected crime increase. In the northwest region—the heart of the Bakken boom—the highway patrol just reported a 100% year-over-year jump in road fatalities. Double, in one year. Still, it's common that pro-energy development interests paint any citizens concerned about these things as pro-EPA radicals who want to send the state back into financial hardship.

* * *

Kris Kitko, the founder of Bakken Watch, a site that's chronicled some disturbing instances of fracking side effects, tells me the organization has no official stance and its members "range from 'don't halt but regulate or slow down' to 'halt.' Personally, she said, "I understand that jobs, etc. are at stake. But so is the land we grow our food on and the water we use to make it grow. I don't have an answer as to 'what to do,' but at the very least, fracking needs to be studied and chemicals need to be disclosed." She believes closing the "Halliburton Loophole" would at least be a start. Right? Typical hippie nutjob with her ludicrous peace, love and "disclosure" claptrap.

Wary of the increased skepticism of how the energy developers are changing the state and how activists are gaining momentum, industry groups have launched extensive PR efforts such as "Oil Can!" An adorable pun, "Oil Can!" is the propaganda effort of The North Dakota Petroleum Council, whose logo of a massive nodding donkey juicing the entire state could not better explain the organization's true desire.

There is also the site, a "joint project of the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission." It is also a project of an Oklahoma PR firm which counts among its energy industry portfolio America’s Natural Gas Alliance, the Kansas Oil & Gas Resources Fund and the American Clean Skies Foundation. That last uses the wonderful line "It's not a drilling rig. It's a factory."

Meanwhile, in community after community, oil groups are hosting town halls and sponsoring local picnics and make-nice community events. Truckers who wheel the thousands and thousands of heavy semis through small towns have been given candy to toss to children. The efforts are not all that different than what one would expect in war zone where winning the hearts and minds of the locals was a necessary battle for winning the war.

Just a month ago at an oil conference in Houston, one presenter called pushback against the industry "an insurgency." He went on to recommend that PR experts in the industry make it a top priority to download the Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual, as "there are a lot of good lessons in there."

But it's not just the local populations or helping send fracking-friendly candidates to the halls of government. The oil industry is also rolling out the big guns for a national information campaign to spin North Dakotan oil production as the solution to national energy independence.
An October Wall Street Journal piece on Harold Hamm, the CEO of America's 14th-largest oil company and the man credited with "discovering" the Bakken, surely rankled some very Christian residents with the title "How North Dakota Became Saudi Arabia." But the message of a man whose company sits on hundreds of millions of barrels of proven Bakken reserves got a warm reception. The federal government, Hamm said, is "sticking a regulatory boot at our necks." Hamm goes on to complain that the feds sued his company for killing migratory birds; "It's not even a rare bird. There're jillions of them." Coincidentally, this bird preposterousness is a favorite storyline of one Ms. Bette Grande.

In case the boot of Mr. Hamm's point wasn't squarely at the reader's neck, the Journal added, "It's hard to disagree with Mr. Hamm's assessment that Barack Obama has the energy story in America wrong." The article has been Facebook-shared nearly 7,500 times.

There is a legitimate argument that if America is to gain energy independence and destroy some of itself in the process, why shouldn't it be a part that most Americans (and many North Dakotans) will never bother visiting? At some time or another, every spiritual North Dakotan will openly wonder of the Bakken, "God could not have intended human beings to live here." Atheists have no such doubts, of course; evolution confirms to them that humans were not meant to live there.

The Bakken boasts its particular wonders and beauties, like everywhere else. And it's very easy to not care about the future of the far reaches of more or less unpopulated North Dakota—even within North Dakota. But you don't have to visit to understand that, as goes North Dakota energy policy, so goes, eventually, the comparatively hospitable state you live in.

Abe Sauer is the author of the book How to be: North Dakota. He is on Twitter. Email him at abesauer @

47 Comments / Post A Comment

MollyculeTheory (#4,519)

"Yes, Principal Roberts, we know she isn't doing well in class, especially geology. Yes, we're concerned too, but you have to understand, before we adopted her – and we don't like to share this with just anyone – you see, she was a frac baby."

deepomega (#1,720)

The burning tap water drives me up the wall, because there's no evidence that it's fracking-related. Methane in ground water is an old problem that's getting laid at the feet of fracking because fracking is good at working up nimbyism.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@deepomega Tell me again about the drinking water situation in California?

deepomega (#1,720)

@dntsqzthchrmn Where there is no fracking, you mean?

Van Buren Boy (#1,233)

@deepomega "In active gas-extraction areas (one or more gas wells within 1 km), average and maximum methane concentrations in drinking-water wells increased with proximity to the nearest gas well and were 19.2 and 64 mg CH4 L-1 (n = 26), a potential explosion hazard; in contrast, dissolved methane samples in neighboring nonextraction sites (no gas wells within 1 km) within similar geologic formations and hydrogeologic regimes averaged only 1.1 mg L-1 (P < 0.05; n = 34)."

Jargon aside: fracking = more methane; no fracking = less methane

deepomega (#1,720)

@Van Buren Boy: Thanks for the data! Looks like I might be a wrong asshole on this one. I was under the impression that the methane was deep enough that it wasn't likely to contaminate – amusingly, it looks from this report like I had it totally backwards, and contamination from fracking fluids wasn't found, but contamination with methane was. Whoops!

Van Buren Boy (#1,233)

@deepomega Glad to help! The notion that "the methane was deep enough that it wasn't likely to contaminate" is industry propaganda at its best (worst).

Also one of the main issues with fracking fluids is its disposal which is often sent to wastewater treatment plants ill-equipped to handle it. It's also hard to properly identify fracking fluids when companies don't have to disclose its contents.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Van Buren Boy: Right – and regulating the fluid disposal seems pretty simple from a purely mechanical standpoint. We're not talking about nuclear waste!

BirdNerd (#4,196)

@deepomega Or maybe we are. No fucking telling what the ingredients are in that fluid.

Mr. B (#10,093)

Are there people who actually spell it "frac" and "fracing"? Christ, I can see this turning into another mic/mike debate.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@Mr. B Am I late to the Battlestar Galactica party?

Mr. B (#10,093)

@whizz_dumb I am cheerfully ignorant of that particular cultural reference.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@Mr. B In Battlestar Galactica, they say "frack" instead of "frig" when they mean "fuck". Fracking awesome!

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@Mr. B You can't un-know it.

Smitros (#5,315)

@Mr. B As long as I'm not dragged to the poetry open frac they can spell it any way they want.

Mr. B (#10,093)

@Smitros Don't get me started on Greasers vs. Socks.

@Mr. B That is how the industry spells it. A moron in the print media misspelled it and now everyone misspells it. Technically it is hydraulic fracturing (no k).

Mr. B (#10,093)

@Trotter Roller@twitter It's an abbreviation. Please inform "the industry" that, as a rule, abbreviated forms are spelled phonetically.

Colin Lee@twitter (#193,505)

@Niko Bellic In that case, North Dakota's groundwater is totally fracked!

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

North Dakota now? I don't think so. We already did Tennessee today. What would happen if we had to read about every single fucked up little state in this country?

deepomega (#1,720)

@Niko Bellic: TheAwl needs to answer the question on everyone's minds: is some writer thinking of moving to New York to work for gawker teevee??

Smitros (#5,315)

@Niko Bellic We'd have to read fifty pieces, plus one for my city of DC.

jfruh (#713)

I recently took a road trip to Western PA and was amused/horrified by the endless fossil fuel industry promotional billboards lining the turnpike. One actually said "Winds fade, the sun sets, coal is forever," which, no?

SeanP (#4,058)

@jfruh No no no… it's diamonds that are forever! Right element, wrong, um… is allotrope the word I'm looking for?

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

On Deadly Ground starring Steven Seagal and the classic Van Damme flick Nowhere To Run are both amazingly pertinent to these issues.

jfruh (#713)

@whizz_dumb Was Nowhere the Run the one where JCVD kicked a gasoline can at someone's head and then shot it in midair, blowing up both can and bad guy? SYMBOLISM.

Abe Sauer (#148)

@whizz_dumb So true! Segal made Fire Down Below a few years later where, if memeory serves, he actually was a kickass EPA agent, which, HA! How mid-90s.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@jfruh Yup! Plus, the head bad guy oil tycoon looks very Cheney-like, but with a non-placeable accent, as JCVD movies are wont to use.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@Abe Sauer At the end of On Deadly Ground, Seagal makes this environmental speech that is both harrowing and hilarious to watch today. I'm pretty sure it inspired Al Gore.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@Abe Sauer There it is, I remember it as being less depressing. Really great article by the way.

Abe Sauer (#148)

@whizz_dumb Quite the cast too. R Lee Gunny Ermey, Michael Caine, John McGinley, Billy Bob Thornton, and China's Joan Chen (as a native American).

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@Abe Sauer She'll always be Josie Packard to me.

Ham Snadwich (#11,842)

Oh, Commerce Clause. You can be used for anything. In Gonzales v. Raich the government argued that growing your own weed ran afoul of the Commerce Clause because growing your own affects the interstate trade in marijuana.

davetar (#1,114)

Wow, Harold Hamm is a CEO AND an oil surveyor??? It's impressive that he could study engineering while… oh, wait, he didn't discover shit. God, why can't rich people just enjoy being rich and at least let their slaves take credit for the work they do, if not the money?

SeanP (#4,058)

"But it's made all the more bizarre by the fact that participant North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is also currently party to the legal challenge to "Obamacare," which accuses the feds of attempting to "usurp the general police power reserved to the States."

Anyone who thinks the right really gives a damn about federalism ought to be forced to write this sentence on the blackboard about eleventy-billion times.

NFK (#8,747)


This was a really good article! Good explanations all around. I have spent a lot of time up in ND working in the Bakken (Mr. Helms and I share a common company in our resume) and seen all the flares at night, but seeing that from the air definitely puts it in perspective. Wow.

For no clear reason, my coffee-adled brain read the headline as "North Dakota: the Rise of America's Prostate" which for no clear reason really intrigued me.

For no clear reason, my coffee-adled brain read the headline as "North Dakota: the Rise of America's Prostate" which for no clear reason really intrigued me.

Socialism S*cks (#190,687)

pathetic article. the typical amount of diesel is around .088 percent of the fracture fluid. That amounts to 4,400 gallons in 5 million gallons of fracking fluid. and it's used thousand's of feet below potable water veins. it's pumped into OIL bearing shale to bring help bring oil to the surface. but the anti-energy people chose to ignore that fact. Go to
for a video that is short and excellent. and as far as Harold Hamm is concerned, do a google search and see how he got his start. He earned his OWN money unlike libs who want to take from anyone that has more than they do. Oh, and go ahead and laugh at ND if you want – i'm laughing all the way to the bank.

NFK (#8,747)

@Socialism Socks So how much diesel may I put in your drinking water today? As a percentage of course. Also, I reserve my right to add secret ingredients.

tfey_hawbz (#36)

@Socialism S*cks All I can hear in my head is Fred Sanford saying "You big dummy!"

faeabril (#191,089)

it's really valuable for me
i like it…

joshlandsen (#192,171)

"God could not have intended human beings to live here."…???
I was born and raised in 1982-2000 Williston; it is (or was) safer and more peaceful than any place I've lived since.

VWilson (#197,871)

In some ways, an informative article. However, way too much clever use of bullshit to support a preconceived opinion. The dead give-away:

"But then, a lot of human activity—maybe most—is not good for the earth."

By accident the author appears to have revealed that his position is that a good earth is one with limited or no humans. I have several questions for Mr. Sauer: What form of genocide does he favor for the existing human population in order to accomplish his belief? Has he considered forming a National Ecologist Party to promote his beliefs and would he consider using a modified green swastika to rally his believers? Will his human reduction camps be ecologically correct? (Whatever that might be?)

If my comment seems excessively acidic, consider the tremendous potential for human on human violence behind his words.

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