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].

High Country News Classifieds
  • PLANNING & BUILDING DIRECTOR
    Searching for candidates with a Bachelor's Degree in Planning, Community Development, or a related field with 7 years' experience in land use planning forums, including...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • NEWS DIRECTOR
    Based in the state capitol, Boise State Public Radio is the premier NPR affiliate in Idaho. With 18 transmitters and translators, it reaches 2/3rds of...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...
  • FOREST STEWARDSHIP PROJECT DIRECTOR
    Become a force for nature and a healthy planet by joining the Arizona Chapter as Forest Stewardship Project Director. You will play a key role...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ranchers Stewardship Alliance is accepting applications for an Executive Director. This position will provide leadership to RSA, develop a fund raising plan, and effectively communicate...
  • EQUITY IN THE OUTDOORS COORDINATOR
    The Equity in the Outdoors Coordinator will lead community engagement, program implementation and development, and data collection for the Eagle Valley Outdoor Movement (EVOM). EVOM...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT ASSISTANT
    The Idaho Conservation League is seeking a personable individual who is passionate about conservation to join our Sandpoint Field Office. The Community Engagement Assistant will...
  • LIGHTWEIGHT FLY ROD CASES
    4 standard or custom lengths. Rugged protection for backpacking. Affordable pricing.
  • EXPERIENTIAL EDUCATION INTERN/ASSISTANT
    Actively introduce students to Experiential Education, Outdoor Recreation, and Sustainability while engaging and challenging them to learn and participate in these diverse opportunities. Room, board,...
  • ENVIRONMENTAL INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA SERVICES
    In-depth investigations of polluters, lobbyists, regulators, elected officials and others focused on environmentally damaging projects in the U.S. and internationally. We specialize in mining projects,...
  • UNDEVELOPED 40 ACRES - SOUTHWEST COLORADO
    in beautiful Montezuma County.
  • TRUCK DRIVER
    Class A & B drivers, pass all DOT requirements and clean driving record
  • MARIA'S BOOKSHOP FOR SALE
    - Thriving Indie bookstore in the heart of Durango, Colorado. General bookstore with 34-year history as a community hub for Southwest region of CO. 1800...
  • DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    will develop and execute Wild Utah Projects fundraising plan. Call, email or check full description of job online for more details: