Deann Boyd

The “fracking frenzy” occurring in the Bakken Oil Shale Basin has detrimentally affected the land, animals, and peoples of the region. This page will offer a historical overview of the region, a description of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), its safety issues, environmental effects on the land, air and water, and cultural and social effects.

A map showing the location of the Bakken Formation (Credit: Bureau of Land Management)

A map showing the location of the Bakken Formation (Credit: Bureau of Land Management)


Bakken Basin History

According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Bakken Formation is the largest continuous oil resource in the Lower 48 states, and one of the largest on the planet. The Bakken Formation is a substrata of shale rock that holds large quantities of oil reserves. It formed 360 million years ago and it underlies 200,000 square miles of the subsurface of eastern Montana, western North Dakota, and southern Saskatchewan. The USGS estimates the Bakken Basin holds between 3.6 and 7.3 billion barrels of oil, and 6.7 trillion cubic feet of natural gas (Rahemtulla).

Power at the cost of people and the environment is nothing new. During and after World War II, America’s need for cheap power expanded and the U.S. harnessed waterways for power. In 1946, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers decided to build Garrison Dam and flood the lands of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara on the Fort Berthold Reservation of North Dakota. The Three Affiliated Tribes were forced to relocate, nearly destroying their way of life. Ranches, farms and towns were flooded and livelihoods were lost (North Dakota State Government).

At the same time as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was trying to harness the Missouri River on the Fort Berthold Reservation, oil was discovered at Clarence Iverson’s farm near Williston in 1951. The oil boom began. Extracting methods were not as advanced as today and a bust came in the 1980s (American Oil and Gas Historical Society).

In the 2000s, the new technology of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, made it possible to squeeze the remaining oil out of the Bakken. By 2011, oil production rates had outstripped the pipeline capacity to ship oil out of the Bakken. Three factors make the fracking process possible: geology, horizontal drilling, and fracture stimulation. During fracking, the shaft of a well, or the wellbore, is drilled with fresh water, pushing a bit until it reaches the cretaceous layer, or pershale. When they reach the cretaceous layer, they stop drilling, take out pipe and a surface casing is set, and held in place by cement and called the annulus, isolating surface aquifers from the wellbore (Nesset).

Next the driller picks up a mud motor, which drills the curve or angle and sets up another casing. When they reach the four layers of oil shale, the driller targets the middle core and lowest levels. An auger assembly drills until it reaches its destination. Fracture stimulation then cracks the rocks with water and chemicals, and keeps the cracks open with proppants (sand or ceramic beads). The water-chemical slurry is pumped through the wellbore and into the shale rock formations. When the pumps are turned off, the oil and water mixture return to the surface and the proppant stays in the shale to hold space. The oil and toxic wastewater is separated and the oil is stored in separate tanks (Nesset). 


Tankers and rail lines are controversial means of transporting Bakken oil because of its high flammability, or “volatility.” One example was when a train carrying 77 cars full of highly volatile Bakken oil exploded in 2013, destroying 30 buildings and killing 47 people in the Lac-Mégantic, Quebec (Edelstein). (See Oil Train Explosions). 

Roughnecks removing two miles of heavy steel drilling pipe one 32-foot section at a time. (Credit:  Eugene Richards )

Roughnecks removing two miles of heavy steel drilling pipe one 32-foot section at a time. (Credit: Eugene Richards)

Workplace safety is also a concern. An oil worker dies in the Bakken every six weeks on average. Among the most common oil field injuries are amputations, broken bones and burns. Back injuries are common among workers who repetitively lift 70-pound casings and bits during their 12-hour shifts. When accidents happen, it is difficult to prosecute large petroleum companies because they are able to indemnify themselves through energy policies that were written in backdoor meetings during the Bush/Cheney Administration (Gollan).

One of the first people on the scene of a 2011 Bakken Basin explosion was Jebidiah Stanfield. “For his efforts in trying to save his brethren, Stanfill says he was fired from his job. He was told by managers that he’d gone beyond his ‘scope of employment.’ 'He should have remained on his own rig instead of rushing to the scene'.” Records show that co-workers of the men killed in the 2011 accident were paid bonuses for the speed of their work, showing that greed rather than safety was the driving factor (Gollan).

Fracking is linked to asthma, eye, nose, and throat irritation, respiratory illnesses, central nervous system damage, headaches, high blood pressure, anemia, neurological illness, heart attacks and cancer. Many studies link fracking to increased infant mortality and low birth-weight babies, birth defects, and premature death (Rmuse).

Impacts on Land, Air, and Water

The fracking frenzy of extracting oil is generating serious environmental impacts. Fracking is depleting aquifers, causing concerns about earthquakes, and negatively impacting the health and culture of the people who live in the Bakken. It is changing animal behaviors, and large areas have been closed to hunting due to a lack of deer. Even the simple joy of listening to birds and watching them is in danger because the birds are not coming around anymore. (Naumen 2015)

“Our land once was lush with natural grasses, wildlife, June berries and plum trees. Our way of life has been changed because of the interruption by the oil industry. Everything has been tainted by the oil industry: the land, water and especially the air that we breathe,” Fort Berthold tribal member Lisa DeVille told the EPA (Naumen 2015).

As North Dakota's oil boom takes hold, the state's ranchers and agricultural producers are feeling neglected. Grain competes with oil for space on trains and roads, and spills can damage ranch land and cropland. Two years after contamination lands are still barren (Guerin). Drilling platforms and pads dot the landscape. Pipelines and transportation infrastructure make tangled webs stretching for miles across the horizon. Heavy traffic from long-haul trucks delivering and disposing of water, as well as tankers transporting crude oil, have taken a harsh toll on the landscape. (Golden). 

Flaring fouls the air, making it smell like sulfur. The natural gases that are burned during flaring could be collected and used for heating homes, but the fossil fuel industry finds it non-cost effective and instead burns it, adding to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and contributing to global climate changes.  The flaring is equal to the emissions of one million cars (Sky Truth).

Because the companies are after oil rather than less profitable natural gas, they flare off the gas. In 2012, North Dakota’s flared natural gas was responsible for 4.5 million metric tons of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Uncontrolled emissions from wells also pollute the air. Pollutants include: benzene, carbon, nitrogen oxide, benzene, diesel particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, volatile hydrocarbons (Center for Environmental Health). The Bakken skyline is distressing; the sky is the “color of orange everywhere” (Naumen 2015). 

Since fracking began in 2005, flaring is adding to light pollution, this image highlights what the Bakken basin looks like from space. There is so much flaring that it looks like a city the size of Seattle, in an area with no large cities at all (Credit:  Sky Truth ). 

Since fracking began in 2005, flaring is adding to light pollution, this image highlights what the Bakken basin looks like from space. There is so much flaring that it looks like a city the size of Seattle, in an area with no large cities at all (Credit: Sky Truth). 

Fracking also consumes large quantities of water. Two million to 40 million gallons of water are used in the production of a single well. Of special concern are the hundreds of fracking components, some of which contain chemicals known to be or suspected of being carcinogenic or otherwise toxic (Dobb). Honor the Earth contends that waste-water “is polluted with hazardous fracking chemicals, and there is no process or technique for treating this water” (Honor the Earth).

(Credit:  PBS )

(Credit: PBS)

The industry is “self-regulating” — it is up to the industry itself to report leaks or spills over 20 gallons. Leaks go unreported and there is illegal dumping of contaminated wastewater in the middle of the night (Baker).  The “Halliburton Loophole,” named after the company that patented an early version of hydraulic fracturing, was passed during the Bush-Cheney Administration and exempts the oil and gas industry from the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act (Dobb). Another concern is water migration which can occur when there are cracks in well linings (Nauman 2014).

Cultural Impacts

There have been some positive effects of fracking in the Bakken Basin, such as lower unemployment rates, increased homeownership, fewer young people moving away, and cash from employment and royalty payments, but many locals will agree fracking has negatively impacted many communities (Dobb).

Some towns like Williston have tripled in size. Many towns have suffered from an inability to meet their infrastructure needs. Workers with no place to go are sleeping in vehicles, overpriced lodging and “man-camps,” because of acute housing shortages. The increase in population has contributed to more vehicle accidents, overcrowded streets. and more emergency response calls (Dobb).

Gangs have moved in. Heroin, methamphetamine and other drug abuse is occurring at epic proportions. “It’s like a tidal wave. It’s unbelievable,” said the Chief Judge of Fort Berthold’s Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara nations (or Three Affiliated Tribes) Diane Johnson, “The drug problem that the oil boom has brought is destroying our reservation.” She states crime has tripled in the past two years and 90% of that is drug-related. Prostitution, human trafficking, rape, assaults and robberies are hitting some areas hard. Illnesses and health costs are increasing. Families and lives are being torn apart. Murders are on the rise and police forces are stretched too thin.  The Fort Berthold Reservation's Police Chief, Chad Johnson, needs 50 more officers, but even if he had them, housing shortages are so acute he doesn’t know where they would live. Johnson, the judge, has the same problem recruiting prosecutors. “We can’t get them to come to the MHA Nation because of the lack of housing and the community is becoming so unsafe,” she said. “It is extremely dangerous to live here now.”  (Horwitz).

The Streets of Williston, North Dakota  (Credit:  Mintpress)

The Streets of Williston, North Dakota  (Credit: Mintpress)

For tribal members, even simple ceremonies such vision quests and bundle gathering are impacted because they are no longer allowed to go to sacred areas, which are now off limits or affected by the fracking processes. Sun Dances and other ceremonial gatherings have been moved or canceled because the traditional use areas are inaccessible or unsafe (Addicks).


Extreme energy extraction is slowing because of dropping oil prices, increasing expenses incurred during hydraulic fracturing, and opponents who are speaking out and applying pressure to tribal councils and local governments to adopt anti-fracking and divestment resolutions. The Standing Rock Sioux Nation, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Nation and the Onondaga Nations have bans on fracking and fracking wastewater treatment. Last Real Indians and Honor the Earth have called for bans or anti-fracking resolutions in treaty territories (Naumen 2014).

There is growing evidence that resistance by local communities can raise the cost of fossil fuel extraction projects, making them less attractive for companies to continue. A First Peoples Worldwide report showed that 52 U.S.-based companies operated 370 gas, mining, or oil sites that were near or on Indigenous lands. More than 90% of the sites analyzed posed significant to high risk to investors and shareholders. Of the 52 companies analyzed, only one had a clear policy on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) of agreeing to Free, Prior, and Informed, Consent (FPIC). Resistance by grassroots groups, organizations, local communities and Indigenous peoples can have immediate and long-term effects that are precedent setting (Gedicks).

“People change all the time and cultures change all the time and technologies change," says Michael Waters, an archaeologist at Texas A&M University, “And they change because people are adapting to new environments and changes in climate” (Harris). How much the people in the Bakken region have to change and adapt will directly correspond to the actions the global society takes in the next few years. 

In order to stop the fracking frenzy and encourage sustainable growth in renewable energies and new technologies, it is up to each of us to reach out and speak up for divestment from fossil fuels and into renewable resources, such as solar and wind, as a way to encourage growth in workforces and economies (Kadvany). “Warrior Up!” for Mother Earth, speak up for your local community and those in Fort Berthold, Williston, along the Missouri River, and throughout the Badlands of the Bakken.

People are waking up to what is happening. All around us are small signs of hope. It is up to us to grab those and weave them together for a lasting world. The most important part of the formula, to protect Mother Earth, Father Sky, and future generations, is for each of us to reduce the amount of energy that we use, and keep the fossil fuels from being extracted and causing further damage. Everyone will benefit from keeping Bakken oil in the ground (Naumen 2015).



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American Oil and Gas Historical Society (n.d.). First North Dakota Oil Well. AOGHS. 

Baker, E. (2015, November 18). Environmental Director of Three Affiliated Tribes. Personal interview.

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Golden, M. (2014). Stanford-led study assesses the environmental costs and benefits of fracking. Stanford News. 

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Harris, R. (2014, February 13). Ancient DNA Ties Native Americans From Two Continents To Clovis. National Public Radio.     

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Horwitz, Sari (2014, September 28). Dark side of the boom:North Dakota’s oil rush brings cash and promise to reservation, along with drug-fueled crime. The Washington Post.

Kadvany, E. (2015, November 19). Stanford students call on university to divest from fossil fuels. Palo Alto Weekly. 

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Nauman, T. (2015, November 14). Independant Journalist and Health and Environment Editor for Native Sun News: Personal Interview. 

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Sky Truth. (2013, August 31). Fracking flares In North Dakota Bakken Shale equal 1 million cars each year.

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