Bittersweet in the Bakken

ND Sweet Crude Oil

The Bakken fracking boom is a testament to the innate ingenuity of the human mind. Who thought just a few short years ago that application of new technology on old oil fields would turn North Dakota into America’s 2nd largest oil producing state, and subsequently turn around a century of out-migration.

What a tremendous opportunity.  And in every opportunity, there inevitably lies threats.  Eventually, someday sooner or later, the oil will run out.  In the meantime, it has been great to see some of my old classmates return to North Dakota with this economic expansion.  One of these is a high school chum, Jason, who is currently creating jobs in the Bakken.  He’s posted some observations from the man camps of the Williston Basin reflecting both infectious optimism… and educated caution:

This is a pint jar of North Dakota sweet crude oil. It came from about 11,000 feet below the surface, somewhere close to 48N, 102W. This is the first time I have laid eyes on the product that is fueling (no pun intended) the economic boom in North Dakota, the product that is indirectly providing me with employment. This sample was taken right before it entered a pipeline for transport to some other holding area, before continuing on either by pipeline or by rail to a refinery. After coming out of the ground, it went through a separator, where it was filtered from the water and sand that came up with it. After sitting for a few minutes here on my table, a small amount of grit settles to the bottom of the jar.

Looking at the jar in the sunlight, it is a very dark green, about like a wool Army blanket my folks had when I was a kid. In the evening light, it turns to a matte black. As you can see in the photo, in thin layers it is orange. The crude is comprised of at least four compounds we are all familiar with: paraffin, motor oil, diesel fuel, and gasoline. If I had some proper filtering paper, I could leave one end dipped in the jar and come back after a couple of hours to find distinct layers on the paper: heavier chemicals on the bottom, lighter ones further up the paper. It smells exactly like it should, like a mixture of all those things. If you dip a rag in this stuff and light it on fire, the crude will burn first, then the rag. Think of the movies where the hero searches a dark tunnel carrying a torch.

This is bittersweet for me, as I really appreciate this stuff right now, yet I feel that we as a nation could do so much with alternate energy sources. In fact, when I build my next home, I will be utilizing some combination of wind and solar, plus a grey water system. But for now I am making a living in an oil boom, and as my company evolves to deal with crude more directly, I will do everything I can to make sure we do so as responsibly as we can.

Hydraulic fracturing technology, essentially, has given us a second chance.  A second chance for communities in the Bakken (and the Niobrara, and the Marcellus) to bring their children home and build a better future.  A second chance for North Dakota and Montana, (Wyoming and Colorado, western Pennsylvania and upstate New York) to realize the value in their natural resources.  A second chance for America to invest and fund what comes next, whatever that might be.

Will we take our second chance, or waste the opportunity?  That sounds like a bittersweet symphony to me.

(re-posted by permission, thanks Jason!)


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