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.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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