Editorial: The True Price of Oil in North Dakota

Black gold is transforming North Dakota. In just a few years, one of the country’s least populous states has become its most important oil producer after Texas.

Thousands of Americans have invaded the Bakken region, hundreds of wells have been drilled, dozens of new roads have disfigured the plains. And that’s not counting toxic spills.

To properly measure the scale of this oil exploitation, take the road that joins Williston to New Town. And you have to take it at night. The asphalt is new, the road is narrow and winding. There is no lamppost. The eye gets used to the darkness. Then, we notice orange or yellow dots. Some form large spots on the horizon. Others look like the spotlight we use during the first Hollywood.

But beware, they are not bulbs that illuminate the plain; they are flames. It is natural gas that is burned. Huge amounts of gas. Every day, we burn enough to heat 4,000 Canadian homes for a full year. That’s the daily waste of North Dakota. See what it looks like at night:

These flames are ubiquitous. It is the most significant symbol of the oil boom, made possible by new fractionation techniques. Dozens of yellow and orange dots illuminate a vast, almost uninhabited space. Views of space, the vast plains of North Dakota form a spot of light as large as Montreal.


By day, the landscape is also unequaled. Wells everywhere, with their heads moving constantly. An industrial activity that resembles a choreographed ballet. On a daily basis, one million barrels of oil are pumped from the Bakken formation. And hundreds of trucks move between these wells. You have to bring the equipment, the water for the fractionation, bring the oil back to the trains. This is where we left the cars that exploded in Lac-Mégantic.

This circulation of course causes all kinds of problems. State roads are now the most dangerous in the country. A lady explains that she does not want to walk around her village anymore, for fear of being hit by a truck. The state plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to strengthen its roads, expand them.

Fractionation produces a lot of waste. Filters are used at each well to capture some of the residues that come out with the fracturing fluids. Used, they are considered radioactive. Their storage is expensive. They are sometimes abandoned in incongruous places, like vacant buildings, near places where children play.

This oil boom is born of new technologies. And it started at about the same time as the recession. Thousands of Americans have rushed to North Dakota. Accommodation is far from adequate, especially for long winters. Despite supplemental heating, ice can form inside mobile homes like these.

The New Town Police Chief expects the population to double, or even triple, during the year. Crime is also increasing. There are hard drugs, prostitution, firearms used in a dangerous way. “We are a city of 3000 inhabitants with the crime of a city of 45 000 inhabitants, calculates the chief James Johns. It’s as if our territory is growing every day. ”

The population is growing so fast that the services are not following. There are few restaurants, let alone quality establishments. This is the best restaurant in New Town. Its owner arrived from Las Vegas last summer. He could not find a building to open a suitable restaurant.

Oil of course brings a lot of money to those who own land. Last fall, Marilyn Hudson’s family was receiving about $ 180,000 a month in royalties. The amount varies with the value of oil in the markets. Marilyn lives in the Fort Berthold Reserve, from which a third of the oil from the northern United States is extracted. However, the majority of residents on the reserve receive no royalties. They depend on their local government.

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