In N.D. oil boom, property, environmental challenges

Karen Smith's view
Karen Smith built her retirement home surrounded by wetlands and prairie. Now the view from her dining room table includes an oil well. She expects to soon be surrounded by wells.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

In western North Dakota, oil wells are reviving once-dying small towns, but because only one quarter of landowners also own the mineral rights to their land, local residents say oil rigs can pop up on their land without warning.

Some landowners are unhappy about the assertive ways of oil companies, and are beginning to wonder about the environmental cost of the oil boom.

But there's no denying the economic benefit the oil has brought to the state. North Dakota is now the fourth-largest oil producing state in the nation and has a budget surplus thanks to oil taxes.


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Frankie Kartch now lives in Duluth, but he grew up in western North Dakota and still owns a farm here among the rolling hills and wetlands.

On a windy, rainy fall day, Kartch brings a reporter to one of his fields, where a new oil well brings up crude from two miles below the earth. Kartch doesn't own the mineral rights to his land so he gets no payment for the oil.

The mineral rights were sold long before Kartch purchased the land. Many landowners sold mineral rights to land over the past 50 years. The state says only about 25 percent of landowners still own the rights to the oil under their land.

Kartch is worried about what this oil well will do to his land; wetlands hug two sides of it. And he said the oil company buried several tons of drilling waste on his land.

Waste pit
This pit lined with plastic sheeting collected waste from the drilling and hydraulic fracturing of an oil well. The waste was later buried. Frankie Kartch worries the waste will leak from the pit and contaminate nearby wetlands. State officials say the waste storage method is safe.
Courtesy Frankie Kartch

"We had the pit tested when they were going to reclaim it because I wanted to know what was going to be buried on my property and it was benzene, toulene, zylene, ethyl benzene, barium, cadmium, lead, mercury," he said.

Kartch is suing EOG Resources over this well. The oil company declined an interview request for this story. Kartch said they offered $8,000 for a permanent lease on the land, the going rate in the area.

Oil companies are supposed to negotiate a lease with landowners. They also need a permit and are required to give the landowner 20 days notice before drilling. Kartch refused to sign the lease, but the oil well was granted a permit and put in anyway.

Kartch argues that's an unconstitutional taking of his land.

"Right now it's the wild west out here. It's a gold rush mentality. Drill, baby, drill," he said. "A lot of people that live out there feel the culture has shifted and changed forever."

Kartch said he uses oil much like anyone else.

"I'm certainly not anti-drilling by any means," he said. "I drive a 3/4-ton diesel pickup. I need diesel, I need oil, just like every other consumer."

The state, not the federal Environmental Protection Agency, is responsible for monitoring and inspecting oil wells.


Department of Mineral Resources Assistant Director Bruce Hicks said all of those chemicals Frankie Kartch found on his land are buried in a pit with a plastic liner designed to contain the waste.

The oil boom has affected the regulators, too.

Hicks said it's been hard to keep inspectors. A dozen have left, lured away by the chance to double their income working for an oil company. The agency has 14 inspectors to monitor more than 140 drilling rigs spread across 17 counties.

Still, Hicks said the state is doing a good job of protecting the environment.

"We want to protect the potable waters of the state and protect the environment," Hicks said. "That's our number one goal; to have a good business climate for industry, but do it in a manner that's still protecting the environment."

Hicks said the agency is continually assessing and adjusting it's regulations. For example, he said the state has put more restrictions on those waste pits to reduce contaminants left on site after a well is drilled.

New road leads to well
A road created to access a new oil well site in Mountrail County, N.D. Some local landowners say drilling rigs appear on their land without warning. Most landowners don't own the rights to minerals under their land.
MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson

But a growing number of North Dakota landowners believe the regulatory balance leans in favor of oil companies at the expense of the state's land and water.

They wonder who will be responsible if the buried waste leaks into a wetland 10, 20 or 50 years from now.

"That's a million dollar question. Ten years from now is that okay?" asked state Rep. Kenton Onstad, D-Parshall, a farmer and politician who represents this area where dozens of new oil wells are drilled every month.

Onstad said there will be at least 10,000 oil wells in North Dakota, and each one will have a buried waste pit nearby. He said there are no test wells to monitor those buried pits for pollution leaking into groundwater.

"EPA will fine me on my farm if they catch me changing oil out on an old rock pile," Onstad said. "Yet you can bury all that waste in the ground and call it good."


Onstad said as hundreds of wells are drilled across the 17 oil-rich counties of western North Dakota, environmental and property rights concerns are growing.

He said the oil boom is filling the state treasury, but he thinks one of the most important questions is how well the land and landowners are protected. He expects a push for more regulation and more landowner rights when the legislature convenes in January.

Karen Smith plans to be one of the people demanding change.

When Smith retired after working 25 years for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she bought 610 acres of prairie and wetlands in a remote area of western North Dakota. She now worries oil wells will fragment the habitat and harm the prairie birds and animals that use it.

Her dining room window looks out over a large wetland, and a new oil well on a hillside a mile away. Burning natural gas flares light the sky at night.

"It's like an invasion," she said. "I don't have a night light for a reason. I want to see the stars, I want to see the northern lights."

More oil wells are planned nearby on Smith's land. She owns mineral rights so she's likely to earn good money from new wells, but she's frustrated that as a landowner, she has no control over where an oil well is drilled.

"If they want to put it on this hill 500 feet from me they can" she said. "I don't see how that can be right ... I would far prefer to have no oil development. Period."

Smith said she's joined a newly formed landowners group that will lobby the legislature in January. They plan to push for more rights for landowners in negotiating leases with oil companies.

Read part one of this series, which investigates the oil boom's effect on western North Dakota towns.