Letter from Elkhorn Ranch — From the March 2013 issue

Bakken Business

The price of North Dakota’s fracking boom

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The prairie reveals. Any hilltop’s field of vision opens to evidence of energy and motion, fresh tracks, today mostly tire tracks of the present, but also old tracks through time. I have come to North Dakota to single out a particular and peculiar set of tracks — hoofprints, really — for what they tell us about our destruction of the natural world.

Theodore Roosevelt arrived in the town of Little Missouri, in the center of the Dakota Territory, in 1883, in his early twenties, then all buckskin, bluster, teeth, and glasses. He came first of all to kill animals and then to write about it. But Roosevelt was already an accomplished naturalist and convinced Darwinist, and he came also to see the raw nature then on display in the Badlands, a stark landscape of eroded clay and red scoria in the southwest corner of what is now North Dakota, a bit of geologic chaos that serves as counterpoint to the gentle prairie all around.

The year that followed was disastrous for Roosevelt. On Valentine’s Day 1884, his mother, Mittie, and his young blue-blood wife, Alice Lee, herself recently a mother, died in the same house on West 57th Street in Manhattan. That summer, at the Republican National Convention in Chicago, he suffered a professional setback to go with his personal catastrophe when his preferred candidate was kept off the ticket. Instead of heading home from the convention, Roosevelt took a train straight from Chicago back to the Badlands, this time intending to stay a while. He bought a ranch, which he named the Elkhorn. Roosevelt wrote volumes about the Badlands, but never about what settled his grief while he was there. In any case, when he returned to New York and to politics, in 1886, he was transformed.

Before heading west, Roosevelt had already made a name for himself as viscerally and implacably opposed to corruption, taking on Tammany Hall in the New York legislature, laying the foundation of what would become a career of trust-busting that closed the Gilded Age and eventually broke up John D. Rockefeller’s megamonopoly, Standard Oil. But at the Elkhorn he learned a deep engagement with the landscape, a love of the wild, and he reinforced an obsession with the strenuous that would take him through life. His character formed. What happened there propelled Roosevelt almost single-handedly to found the American conservation movement, leading one Roosevelt scholar to call the Elkhorn the “cradle of conservation.”

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’s ninth book, It Runs in the Family, will be published this year by St. Martin’s Press. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “The Oil We Eat,” appeared in the February 2004 issue.

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  • Xeno Phundibulum

    This article should remind readers that shale oil and oil shale are not the same thing. The confusion is widespread and has led to the term tight oil (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tight_oil) to describe light crude oil entrapped by low porosity shale, which is the situation for Bakken, Barnett, and Eagle Ford.

    Shale permeated with kerogen is most often known as oil shale. It is usually extracted by mining the rocks and then extracting the low grade oil. With an energy density less than camel dung, the price of oil must be relatively high for this to be worth doing.

    It’s a whole new ball game. North Dakota government data shows that the average Bakken well produces 141 barrels per day and sees a rapid drop in flow after one year (40% by one analysis); that is why so many wells are being drilled. By contrast, the average well in Saudi Arabia produces 6000 barrels per day and the total number of active wells there is about the number of wells being drilled in ND every year.

  • Victorian

    What a thoroughly depressing article. What’s really missing is discussion of climate change. It basically goes unmentioned in this article, but it’s a huge part of the story.

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