I inherited an oil field. Now what do I do with it?

A writer faces a moral dilemma: fight the bureaucracy to end oil extraction on family land or give in?

 

I recently inherited a dilemma. After my elderly uncle died, several of his nieces and nephews, including me, became owners of his North Dakota mineral rights. I had mixed emotions about this, but the dominant one was dismay: I would soon find myself profiting from the extraction of fossil fuel, an environmentally damaging practice. 

Four years ago, my family and I saw some of that damage first-hand when we traveled to the North Dakota oil patch. We drove the battered gravel roads, listened to the hiss of natural gas flares, and sniffed the rotten-egg smell of hydrogen sulfide. 

During a tour of one of my uncle’s 19 active oil wells, the worker on the site carried an empty plastic water bottle into a small building. It contained equipment that separated the natural gas and wastewater from the oil produced by the well. He soon returned, the bottle filled with a bubbly, greenish fluid.

We all stared. We were seeing Bakken crude as it comes out of the ground. Cellphone cameras clicked, someone said something about the fizziness. I held the bottle, shook it, and more bubbles appeared. At the time, Bakken oil trains had not yet started derailing and exploding, so my next question was fairly innocent: “If I put a match to this, would it burn?” The worker looked surprised, and perhaps more than slightly alarmed. “Probably.”

A well flares on the Evanson family farm in McKenzie County, North Dakota.

We left the oilfield and went home, but the North Dakota oil boom raged on. Oil companies continued to break up the rolling plains with access roads. They drilled thousands of wells, burned off billions of cubic feet of natural gas for lack of pipelines, injected millions of gallons of toxic wastewater back into the earth, and spilled millions of gallons of toxic fluids onto the ground and into the creeks.

Today’s low oil prices have forced a slowdown in drilling, but production remains relatively high. Meanwhile, climate scientists tell us we should leave most of the world’s remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

As a new mineral-rights owner, I have wondered whether I could keep one well’s worth of oil in the ground by refusing to sign any future leases. Unfortunately, North Dakota and other oil-producing states make that option almost impossible. Oil development is considered the greater good. 

I’ve also pondered legal action that challenges North Dakota’s oil-promoting mentality. Given the international mandate of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, such actions will likely become more common. But the North Dakota judiciary has been hostile to “theoretical” lawsuits. And it might be hard for me, a North Dakota property owner who lives elsewhere, to claim I’ve been harmed by the state’s oil policies.

Maybe I could challenge the North Dakota Industrial Commission, the regulatory group that issues drilling permits. Its members, all elected officials, have accepted campaign contributions from the energy industry, according to the Center for Public Integrity and the New York Times. Are some North Dakotans angry about this?

I could try to support any homegrown efforts to shift the state away from oil. After all, the North Dakota Constitution says: “Government is instituted for the protection, security and benefit of the people, and they have a right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require.” It seems to me that the public good now requires it.

Hiring an expensive lawyer to challenge North Dakota’s oil-loving ways would be hard, exactly as Merriam-Webster’s defines the word: “difficult to experience, having a lot of pain, trouble, or worries.”

Of course, I could sell my mineral rights, but I would still face the dilemma of enjoying the convenience of a harmful product. If I keep my mineral rights, I have a say — however small — in North Dakota’s oil future.

I could also simply sit back and deposit my oil money in my grandchildren’s college accounts. Their parents would love it. That seems easier, and the dictionary agrees with me about what I mean by the word “causing or involving little difficulty or discomfort.” But easy also means “requiring or indicating little effort, thought, or reflection” — in other words, continuing to respond the way we have long responded to the profound damage caused by fossil fuels.

I don’t yet know what I’ll do. But I’m tempted to go beyond what I did several years ago when the worker handed me the bottle of Bakken crude. That time, I just briefly shook things up. This time, I want to light a match as well. After all, my grandchildren will someday inherit not just the family oil rights, but also the world that results from burning that oil.

Lisa Westberg Peters is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is a writer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and author of Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...