A Night in the Bakken Oilfield

I spent a night in the middle of the Bakken oil field – or more accurately, in the Walmart parking lot in Williston North Dakota – which really is in the middle of the oilfield. To remind you, Williston is/was the boom town that more than doubled in size in a few months when energy companies started exploiting the oil shale deposits. Oil was to be found everywhere. Prices went through the roof. Oil workers were sleeping anywhere they could find a bed. Investors built thousands of apartments.

I was not sure what to expect. My images of oil fields were those I had seen in Oklahoma, Texas and California in the 80’s – fields of rocking horse pump jacks sucking on the earth, pipes and flare towers connected to tanks, all of it black. Open pits containing “stuff”, also black.

With these things in mind, Williston was a pleasant surprise. It has immaculate houses on clean tree-lined streets; shopping areas from the 100-year-old business district to the perimeter with all the businesses you would expect.

On the open land surrounding Williston – and there is a lot of land – are industrial buildings with huge lay-down yards with pipe, metal structures and hundreds of trucks and semis carrying devices and structures I could not recognize.con

Apartment buildings and hotels are everywhere. Mixed in with the industrial buildings are row upon row of single-wide trailers, each with 3-4 doors. Driving through the countryside you come upon large apartment complexes in a farm field.

Weatherford Rotaflex

But I was particularly surprised by the wells. At first you have to look for them, particularly on the farms. The pumps, tanks and small buildings are painted shades of sage and tan in the finest Johnson County tradition. They are clustered together on relatively small plots of land. I learned that oil shale wells are drilled horizontally. The oil bearing layer is only 150’ to 300’ thick, but covers 20% of northwest North Dakota and into Montana and Canada. The wells are drilled vertically for 2 miles until the shale layer is reached, and then turned horizontally through the shale layer for another 1-3 miles. What this means is that multiple wells can be drilled and fanned out from a single site. With this wide spacing and the camouflage paint, the well sites are far from intrusive.

At some of the well sites I could not find the pumpjacks. There were instead towers and if you looked closely you could see a cage device going up and down. I discovered these “oil elevators” are belt-driven lift devices with strokes 3-4 times longer than conventional pump jacks.

At the risk of opening the fracturing controversy, I did find a few surprises. You can research these if you are interested.

  • Hydraulic fracturing causes small earthquakes < M1. That is how it works.
  • According to the USGS, deep wastewater injection causes more and larger quakes than hydraulic fracturing. This particularly so if in a fault area. Oklahoma is particularly prone
  • Groundwater contamination does not occur by fracturing fluids seeping up from 2 miles down. It occurs from improper handling of materials by the driller on the surface.
  • Health risks are primarily incurred by the workers, however, those living in proximity to a well being drilled are exposed to the same chemicals as the workers. I have not found any information that indicates completed wells continue to leak hazardous chemicals, although it is certainly possible.