Impressions of the oil boom counties of western North Dakota: big trucks, big ranches, big construction sites. Even on a Sunday, trucks are rolling. This is why the state’s unemployment rate stands at 3 percent, the lowest in the country. But some of the ranchers have mixed feelings.
We stopped at Donny Nelson’s ranch where two drilling rigs towered over the rolling plains and stood awkwardly out of place in front of an imposing butte known locally as Thunder Butte. There’s hardly a ranch that doesn’t have some of these rigs or pads from which companies pump oil, and capture or burn off natural gas in flares. Nelson also has a bunch of drilling pads, most of them close to the house where he lives on 8,000 acres.
Sometimes these wells can be lucrative for the ranchers, but not always. One unusual aspect of the development is that mineral rights can be bought or sold separately from the rest of property rights known as surface rights. Since oil was discovered in this area in the early 1950s, ranchers and farmers have been selling off mineral rights. The boom in conventional oil drilling – and oil prices – in the 1980s triggered another round of mineral rights sales. Nelson has some of his own mineral rights, but only a small portion; most of the land he gradually acquired had been severed from its mineral rights before he bought it.
Once the mineral rights are sold, the landowner can’t reject development. He can only negotiate a limited number of items: compensation for surface areas rendered useless, the location of pipelines and access roads, and disposal of “tailings,” the drilling mud, rock and other waste that comes up from a new well.
One of the running themes here is the long list of things that don’t go according to plan. The beer and whiskey bottles Nelson said he found near temporary worker housing. The saline water spilled by accident, leaving a field barren. Tailings pools that are used for other junk and then aren’t cleaned up. Some of the companies drilling on his property are better than others, but keeping after them keeps him busy.
Nelson isn’t the only rancher chafing at the disruption from the oil industry. Brenda Jorgenson and her family own a ranch north of Route 2 and an oil company wanted access to their property to [do a] survey for a natural gas pipeline. She didn’t want to give or sell access for a pipeline – and she doesn’t own her own mineral rights. So the company got a court order telling the Jorgensons to let the company onto on their property. “They are pushing the limits and showing disregard for native grasses and beauty and all that God created,” she said.