The Bakken Breaks

How did two environmentalists wind up working in North Dakota’s oil patch?

Jennifer Strange

Six days a week, Terry’s alarm shrills us awake at 4:25 a.m. He turns off the ringtone and presses his lean body against mine. He doesn’t grumble; he doesn’t complain; he just lifts his six-foot-four-inch frame out of bed, rustles together some underclothes, and heads into the bathroom of our nine-hundred-square-foot apartment. 

“Hot chocolate?” I ask on this frigid midwinter Friday morning, but he doesn’t hear me through the door. I’m in the kitchen by the time he comes out. He’s bundled in a double layer of long underwear and looks cozy and rustic and handsome, as if we’re at a ski lodge. The radio warns of a red flag day, with polar vortex windchills of minus seventy. Through the sliding glass doors we can hear the constant rumble of idling semitrucks. The tankers are lined up for two blocks at a deep water well pump station, waiting to fill up with clean water from an underground aquifer.  

Terry and I don’t talk about much this early in the morning. I stand at the stove, willing the kettle to squeal. He moves slowly, like a giant who’s learned to conserve his energy. He munches down one of the egg-and-sausage breakfast sandwiches we mass-produced last weekend. He pours a glass of apple-raspberry juice and swallows a handful of vitamins and herbal supplements. Then he spends the next half hour donning layers of protective clothing. Limb by limb, he tucks himself into gear that’s so heavily insulated and quilted, he can hardly sit down once he’s dressed. He finally reaches for the three-hundred-dollar coveralls that hang over the door like a stiff, invisible man. They’re coated in fire-retardant chemicals that the label claims won’t come out in the wash. He breathes deliberately as he lunges and crouches, inch by inch, into the outerwear. He grimaces when he grabs the strap over his shoulder. The injury he incurred the first month on the job stabs at him. I move to help, but he keeps to himself. 

The rest of Terry’s gear is arranged on the desk so he’s sure not to leave it behind: a dark gray fire-retardant balaclava that makes him look like a terrorist, a black fire-retardant neck gaiter that fits snugly under his collar and covers any exposed skin, and industrial fire-retardant work gloves. The gloves are the only item provided by his employers. These pieces of protective equipment are all required by law and are all designed to repel fire just long enough for the wearer to strip them off and run away before the pile of clothing bursts into flames. 

I was shocked the first time I figured that out, by reading the laundry instructions. And I was even more shocked to learn that Terry and his colleagues have never seen a demonstration of how this protective clothing works. Every day I fear someone out there will get set on fire and think he’s protected by leaving his fire-retardant clothes on.

A small orange device perches next to Terry’s yellow hard hat. This is the single most important piece of his safety ensemble: a hydrogen sulfide gas detector. It looks just like a garage door opener and clips onto the front of his coveralls. He triple-checks that it’s soundly attached. 

Terry is not a firefighter. And he’s not preparing to go to war in some remote, risk-filled location. He’s about to face another day as a production water tanker driver in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field.

A photo of a man wearing elaborate safety gear, including a helmet, face mask, and eye protection

The author's husband, Terry Moore, wearing the protective clothing required to work as a truck driver in the Bakken oil field.

Terry sits down on the small white bench in the doorway of the hall closet and forces his mummified frame forward, toward the boots on the floor. The boots look mean, rough, hard. They have crampons to help him spike his way through ice and frozen mud. I fixate on his socks. We had to special-order the extra warm ones with reinforcements to withstand the abuse of steel-toe work boots in arctic conditions. I think about how much socks measure into our new life on the High Plains. 

When we moved to the tiny ranching and rodeo town of Killdeer, North Dakota—population eight hundred—from southern Oregon in September 2013, I thought we were pretty well prepared. I’d grown up in South Dakota, and both of us had lived off the grid for years at a time, him in Oregon’s Cascade Range and me outside a remote fishing village in southcentral Alaska. We knew how to manage cold. At least we thought we did. Here, the mercury doesn’t rise above zero degrees for weeks on end and often hovers in the minus thirties. Finding Terry’s work socks took over an hour of online research (and fifty-nine bucks!). 

Both Terry and I identify as lifelong environmentalists. It wasn’t an easy decision to trade the vineyard-woven hills and pure mountain streams of Oregon’s Rogue Valley for the Big Ag and oil rigs of the Bakken. But the job represented a rare and real opportunity to create long-term financial stability with full benefits—a package that eluded us in Oregon, where my freelancing career was long on perks but short on dollar signs, and where Terry had been working three underpaid driving jobs. Plus, Terry, who’s over seventy years old, needed this benefit package if he ever wanted to retire. 

What landed us in Killdeer looks a lot like what’s happened to millions of Americans. By 2009, the Great Recession’s immediate legacy of underemployment stole our modest savings. In 2010, that was combined with a mountain of medical debt incurred from a serious construction accident that left us both with limited mobility. By late 2012, we were in a financial hole that was deepening every month. Our situation was further complicated—and infinitely blessed—by the arrival of three grandsons (my stepgrandsons) between June 2010 and September 2011. The twins were born prematurely, one with cerebral palsy. Number three entered the world with an extremely rare chromosomal abnormality. These three little boys and their parents fight every day for their rightful place in our country’s ever-thinning education, health care, and social services systems. We witnessed their struggles and suddenly had a new concern: we had to do everything in our power to never be a financial burden on our family. 

And so we faced a milestone reckoning, a real crisis in our marriage. Our credit card and medical debt was climbing, and we were about to lose our little house, the first house I’d ever owned and the place we’d poured everything into. Critical action was necessary to stay afloat. Work was available for commercial truck drivers in the Bakken oil patch. It seemed the only responsible decision was to accept the job Terry had been offered and start to arrange a cross-country move. But then our consciences elbowed in. As environmentalists, how could we possibly work in the fossil fuel industry and still sleep at night? Yet what was the alternative? What if we’ve got no bed to sleep in? No roof over our heads? We argued, debated, cajoled, seesawed for days, always landing at the same undeniable fork in the road to our shared future: one path led to certain financial ruin followed by who-knows-what; the other, if followed carefully and diligently, led to financial rescue and opportunity. So we found a tenant for our place, rented a U-Haul, filled it with our lives, and drove east.

       

By the time Terry’s packed into his protective gear and ready to leave for work, he really does look like a warrior—of the industrial Mad Max or maybe Burning Man variety. His super-fly goggles dangle around his neck, and the thick black fleece accessories with their expensive labels would be hip anywhere but here.

He steps out the door.

“Hey!” I say, leaning into the hallway for a final kiss. “Day off tomorrow. Martinis and steak tonight.”

Terry smiles a weary smile, but his eyes sparkle a little as he invokes our code for coping: “Deployment enjoyment,” he says. “Makes it all worth it.” 

We adopted the phrase early on in our move to Killdeer, as a reminder to live in the moment and be grateful for each other, for our love, for our families of birth and of choice. What else makes it all worth it are the people we’ve met in rural southwest North Dakota. Some of them are just like us—folks from all over the country and even the world, searching for a path through the recession, gripping the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder hard enough to keep from falling through the cracks. Some of our new friends are locals, born on these High Plains into families of largely German, English, and Nordic descent; others come from families who have been here even longer, the millennia-old Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people. They have all welcomed us into their fold, whether at work barbecues or the neighborhood grocery store. Every day we do our best to return the favor.    

 

Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing—“fracking” to most people—is a fairly new and largely unregulated technology that, by 2014, had transformed North Dakota into the nation’s second-highest oil-producing state in the country, after Texas. Fracking requires an enormous, ominous, centipede-like pump system that sits over a cased oil well. These wells have often been drilled a mile deep and up to two miles horizontally, to wherever a “shale oil play” has been detected by computer imaging. Once drilled, the wells are cased with steel lining. Back on the surface, the legs of the fracking monster are pipes connected to powerful hydraulics and a surrounding battalion of massive tanks by employees nicknamed “roustabouts” and “roughnecks.” The tanks are filled with a slurry of “production water”—fresh water blended on-site with salt and an individual oil company’s patented chemical cocktail—and silica sand. This slurry, along with a wire set with explosive charges, is pumped from the tanks, through the pipes, and into the well, under extremely high pressure. The wired explosives are controlled by computer technicians who sit in ship-container offices up top. When the perfect combination of pressure and location is reached, these technicians push buttons that trigger the explosives, which violently fracture deep layers of shale, creating fissures that look like lightning bolts and releasing the oil the rock had been protecting.” This process can allow a single well to produce anywhere from one and a half to thirty times the amount of oil it would have yielded otherwise. 

Once the shale has been fractured, there’s an eruption of oil. But it’s not just oil. The production water comes back up with the black gold. It gets filtered from the oil and any leftover sand into a separate holding tank. This production water is recycled many times, sometimes at the same site, before being declared past its usefulness. 

When it’s time to move the production water to a new frac site or dispose of it, a tanker driver like Terry is dispatched. At the oil pad, he climbs to the top of a water tank, measures its level using a low-tech weighted metal gauge, then hooks up a hose that drains the contaminated water into his tanker. More often than not, he is dispatched to a saltwater disposal site. There he hooks his hose up to the filtering fixture, which catches whatever oil, earth, sand, clay, silica, metals, and chemicals remain in the brine after it’s been played out. The water passes through the filter into a pipe and on to its final resting place, thousands of feet below ground. 

A photograph of a man standing in front of a large tanker truck

Terry Moore with the truck he used to haul production water

At work they call Terry “Steady Eddy” because he’s deliberate and never overlooks safety measures in favor of squeezing in an extra load. He’s also known as “The Accountant” for his clean-cut looks, which are out of place in the oil patch, where raggedy mustaches and a cheek full of chew are de rigueur. If only his colleagues could see photos of Terry back in the 1970s, hair falling to his waist, a woven headband across his forehead, his lanky frame tricked out in a fringed vest. He’s never outgrown his idealism about peace, love, and understanding. 

This week, Terry is training another new employee. Last week it was a convivial guy from Jamaica. Today he tells me it’s a wry beer-drinker from Massachusetts. His company has more than quadrupled its fleet of tanker trucks and has hired more than ten times the number of employees that were on board when Terry started over two years ago. And every driver needs to be trained. They all come in with a Class A commercial driver’s license, and many have a hazardous materials, or hazmat, endorsement, but most of them have never manhandled a full tanker in these untamed and often unpaved conditions. 

By 2015, North Dakota had the highest rate of workplace fatalities in the nation, most of them occurring in the oil patch. Every morning, the Dickinson Press (named after our nearest “big city” of twenty-seven thousand people, about forty miles south) reports at least one explosion, oil or saltwater spill, fiery train derailment, shooting at a strip club or man camp, or death involving oil-field traffic.

Every decision you make when you live in the patch has to be carefully considered. Drug cartels, street gangs, human traffickers, and unsavory transients looking for a quick paycheck have moved into the area like fleas on the dog of Big Oil. Most of the locals continue on with their way of life—sometimes supplemented by impressive oil royalty checks—and are friendly to newcomers. But loyalty is a rare commodity unless your North Dakota roots go back two or more generations. 

The same is true in the industry, where loyalty lasts about as long as your employer offers the highest wage for whatever service you perform. Workers often shift companies at a moment’s notice for a dollar more per hour, or blow town the moment their nut has been made,  making it hard to know your coworkers well, if at all. While most of Terry’s colleagues seem to share a vague sense of company fealty—his employer is a genuinely nice fourth-generation North Dakotan—that doesn’t mean they’re all worthy of being entrusted with his life in a dangerous situation. In the oil field, a worker like Terry faces potential death and dismemberment from slipping and falling on the ice, in the rain, or in the mud; from massive, wayward cement blocks that swing from high cranes like something in a Road Runner cartoon; and from exposure to hydrogen sulfide, or H2S, a poisonous, odorless, flammable gas released by fracking. 

When hydrogen sulfide in lower concentrations meets the air, it usually creates the stench of rotten eggs. “The smell of money,” they call it in the Bakken. In higher concentrations, though, it can end your life. The way hydrogen sulfide kills is surprising: You may notice you’ve been exposed to the gas by the odor of sulfur. But you cannot smell higher concentrations of the gas because something in its chemical makeup shuts down the body’s olfactory system before causing respiratory arrest. That’s when it’s lights out. Unless you’re wearing a clip-on monitor, you’ll be dead before you know it. Just imagine the moment you realize you can no longer smell: a visit from the Grim Reaper. 

Our first year in the oil patch, a guy who’d grown up a few towns over met his death this way. He and his colleague were sent to a remote oil pad to make a repair on a piece of equipment. As they worked, something broke and the deadly gas apparently started leaking. The other guy’s hydrogen sulfide monitor went off and he ran like hell away from the tank. But this young buck wasn’t wearing his monitor; he went closer in, presumably thinking he could shut a valve and turn things off. Sadly, the gas got to him first.  

 

By four o’clock, long shadows stretch across the frozen hillside outside my sliding glass door. From the sofa where I’m working to meet a newspaper deadline, I watch the steady stream of oil-field traffic a few blocks away, traveling north and south on once-rural Highway 22. I decide I kind of like the river of headlights—a bit of city on the prairie. 

Family and medical needs brought us back to Oregon in late 2018, but I find I sometimes still miss that river of headlights and its hardworking promises. Looking in the rearview mirror, it’s easier to confess that we felt (and still feel) pangs of guilt for earning a paycheck in the fossil fuel industry, an industry whose shortsighted and under-regulated practices have contributed so significantly to climate change and its egregious toll on the planet and its inhabitants. Believe me, while working in the oil patch, we came up with every rationalization we could to ease the gnaw of complicity. Some of our justifications even teetered on reasonable. For instance, just as we endorse the practice of “grow your own” vegetables and have built our lives around promoting hyperlocalism and supporting local businesses and food systems, it makes sense to us that our country would mine its own resources for the oil that most of us still need to power our lives. 

Also, we were able to bring important skills to the Bakken, skills that might have even helped keep our colleagues and the public safer and better informed. Terry’s professional background in safety and quality control soon translated into a promotion—a position where he trained new production water tanker drivers. And after three and a half years of working in the patch, he would reinvent himself yet again as a corporate trainer for a regional aerospace company. My background in journalism and writing landed me some local newspaper work and ultimately led me to a community of writers that grew into an exciting literary nonprofit organization. We published original work and produced humanities programming about the Bakken oil patch and its effects on the area’s land and people. The time Terry and I spent in North Dakota—nearly six years—also brought us closer to my father and other relatives throughout South Dakota. My family and I had the opportunity to introduce Terry to the prairies and rivers of the High Plains, and we communed with the wildlife and otherworldly beauty of the Dakota badlands. Perhaps the grandest reward, though, are the many lifelong friends we would never have met had we not temporarily relocated to a place we’d never imagined even visiting, let alone moving to. Our lives, I realize, are richer in every way for the Bakken experience.  

 

On the sofa, I bring up my e-mail as a break from thinking about radioactive waste and polluted water. There’s a note from a friend on the West Coast. He’s sent a link to the Earthjustice.org map of “fraccidents”: areas in the United States where something has gone awry due to hydraulic fracturing. Little black-and-white skulls and crossbones litter the East Coast. Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York look like a treasure chest crammed full of decomposed pirates. Practically no large swath of the country has been left unskulled. Two angry graphics sit right on top of southwestern North Dakota. 

“Ouch!” is the e-mail’s subject line. The note reads: “Saw this and thought of you.”

Ouch is right.

I forward the e-mail to Terry—staying connected in our solitary outpost is a challenge, and any correspondence is shared and celebrated—but I don’t mention it when he gets home. He’s been working for fifteen hours, is covered in oily mud, and reeks of petroleum. We peck each other’s lips as I take his dirty, black-vinyl lunch bag and empty water jug and start to wipe them down. He peels off layers of safety gear, not saying much. Chronic exhaustion shows through the brown smears on his face. He stows his filthy work clothes in the laundry room, then heads back through the kitchen to the shower, eyeing the platter of fancy cheeses we bought a few weeks ago at the Costco in Billings, Montana. The steaks are near the stove, waiting to be broiled. The gin—the cheapest we can find that doesn’t burn our throats—is chilled. Olives threaded onto fancy frilled toothpicks await their anointment. Deployment enjoyment. We’ve been working all week for this.

Comments

2 comments have been posted.

Dear Joseph, Thank you for the nudge. I have taken your thoughtful comment to heart and will change the verbiage moving forward. Best, Jennifer

Jennifer Strange | September 2020 | South Coast, Oregon

"...a dark gray fire-retardant balaclava that makes him look like a terrorist..." I am surprised that Jennifer Strange, someone who professes a sensitivity to social issues, would write such a carelessly inflammatory description of Terry's safety equipment. I am even more surprised that the editors of Oregon Humanities would give such a passage the okay to print. We are all prone to bias and liable to make mistakes, but in a world that is so scarred by ignorance and fear, and in an historical moment of such racial grief, we need to take better care of the messages we send. I thank Jennifer Strange for her story. I did eventually read the rest, and it was a valuable experience that she shared. But it wouldn't surprise me if others stopped short at the hurtful slur. Joe

Joseph | September 2020 | Vancouver, Washington

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