The sun started to rise over the horizon as I sat frozen in my car. I had parked at an RV Park for the night to charge, and the cold continued to grip the state tighter and tighter with each passing hour. The temperature had dropped so low the previous night, the charge coming was mostly spent just to keep the battery warm. I spent the night watching the charge trickle in while snow gradually built up on my roof. As the pinks and purples began to appear in the morning sky, I was quite ready to continue the journey. The goal was to get into Watford City and explore the area some. Watford City was the center of the fracking boom, and I needed to see for myself what exactly was going on.
I stared off into the distance after hours of driving. I started to see flames exploding out of pipes firing up into the sky. I had seen things like this before in both Texas and Oklahoma but had no clue what it was. I always had associated it with the oil industry in some way but had never bothered to find out what exactly these things were. I decided to stop and get answers at the next gas station I passed.
“You don’t know what flaring is?” The attendant asked me gruffly with a short chuckle following his question. I was obviously out of my element up here. I didn’t know what said it the best, my long hair, the fact that I was clearly not dressed for the weather, or the electric car that I was driving. All three were definite clues.
The attendant looked me deep in the eyes with a sudden amount of seriousness on his face.
“When you drill for oil—or process the shale for fracking—huge amounts of methane are released. Something has to happen to all of it, so it gets sent up those pipes to be burned off.”
“Wait,” I suddenly said, astonished. “They don’t harvest it? They just burn it off into the atmosphere?”
“But why?! Why wouldn’t they collect it? How much money are they throwing away just burning it?” My agitation grew by the moment.
“Well,” he responded, “if they would make more money building a harvesting system opposed to burning it off, don’t you think they would?”
Grudgingly agreeing, I set off again to the town.
As I drove, I couldn’t wrap my head around what I had recently learned. A google search explained that they were wasting over $1bn a year burning this gas up. To put that number in perspective, the average American household spends $650 on natural gas a year. That means we could fully power 1.5m houses for an entire year on the amount the industry burns into the air out of convenience. My blood boiled as I ruminated about the profligate nature of the oil companies. It didn’t help that the closer I came to civilization, the more of these towers I saw. They spread out across the horizon like little menorahs lighting the way with never-ending flames—if only these kept you out of the darkness like in the tale.
Before I knew it, I arrived in Watford City (“city” was definitely debatable). The air was thick with the smell of diesel and processing plants lined the streets. Hundreds of pick up trucks dotted the roads and the fields, filling up the space between the fracking towers and processing plants. Black clouds spewed out of various pipes. I had no clue what the fog was but I knew it was thick—so thick you could see the dust settle on the undisturbed snow in the distance. A random non-oil related building would appear every once in a while—grocery store; bar; restaurant. The town wasn’t made up of normal people going about their lives, just the oil crews. I pulled off to the side of the road to get some pictures of the factories and flaring structures as a white pickup truck pulled up across the street. Two men inhabited the vehicle and pointed at me…I couldn’t catch a break.
I hopped back in the car and drove closer to the Missouri River. Currently I had been slightly south of the river, but I wanted to see how close the industry actually got to the water supply. I noticed the truck with the two men pull off behind me as I started on my way, following about 500 ft behind. Connecting the dots helped me realize I stuck out here just as much as I did over in Edinburg. I must have driven out of their territory because after a mile or so they left me alone and turned down another road.
The further I got out of town the more I was amazed about how commonplace the industry had become to the local landscape. Cow pastures were sandwiched in between fracking stations. I couldn’t help but think how this “grass fed beef” was most likely being marketed as “free range” or “GMO free”. These cattle are literally breathing in the industrial waste being spewed out all around them, and eating the grass grown in the polluted soil. Remind me not to eat North Dakota beef!
I made it to the river in thirty minutes. The fracking and flaring stations had definitely thinned out but were still present, just not as condensed. As I ate my lunch at the shore, I watched chunks of ice get pushed back and forth by the roaring water. I saw a deer run up and grab a drink then dash off when it sensed my arm reaching for the camera. At that moment, I couldn’t help but wonder about the effect the factories had on the water that deer had just drank.
My mind began to spin with questions. What contaminants had just found its way into its blood stream? How much had the wildlife population been affected in the last ten years? Had there been a decline? Was it too soon to see these effects? Was this causing new mutations in their genes only to be known generations later? Not being a biologist, I decided to curb this line of thinking since it was more likely to be science fiction than anything else. My battery needed some charge before I headed to the National Park close by, so back to the hotel I went.
Closest Level 2 Charger
600 2nd Ave SW, Watford City, ND 58854
Find the conclusion to the story here!