NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC - AMERICA STRIKES NEW OIL
The New Oil Landscape - FREE Feature Download
The fracking frenzy in North Dakota has boosted the U.S. fuel supply—but at what cost?
When Susan Connell arrives at the first oil well of the day, she tosses her stylish black-rimmed glasses onto the dashboard of her 18-wheeler, climbs down from the cab, and pulls the zipper on her fire-resistant coveralls up to her neck. It’s early July, about 7 a.m. We’re on the Fort Berthold Reservation, in western North Dakota. Connell, 39, the mother of two young girls and one of the few female big-rig drivers in the oil patch, is hauling water. Produced water, as it’s officially known. The drivers call it dirty water. During the early days of pumping at a new well, oil is accompanied by fluids and other substances used during drilling, along with salt water, which is abundant above the subterranean layers of rock where the coveted sweet crude is found. Eventually the man-made additives diminish, leaving mostly salt water. Five of the three-story-high tanks in front of us contain oil; the sixth, everything else. That’s what Connell is here to transfer to a waste-disposal well.
“Just don’t pass out on me,” Connell says, half in jest. We’ve scaled a steep stairway to a narrow steel catwalk 30 feet above the ground, but she’s not referring to the height. She says that one of the first times she opened the hatch atop a dirty water tank, she was overcome by fumes. “I fell to my knees.” No one had warned her about the dozens of chemicals in the water, including hydrogen sulfide, H?S, its rotten-egg odor created by bacteria growing inside wells. In high enough concentrations it can be poisonous, even lethal. Ironically, the gas poses the greatest risk when it deadens your sense of smell, another safety lesson Connell had to learn on her own. Eventually someone gave her an H?S detector, which she clipped to her collar whenever she approached a well that had turned “sour” enough to be hazardous. Once she was pumping dirty water from her tanker truck when the detector sounded. She scrambled away, thinking she’d escaped harm. But hours later she felt stabbing pains in her stomach, the prelude to a weeklong bout of vomiting. Her next purchase was a gas mask.
Connell tells me to stand upwind, then gingerly lifts the hatch. No fumes. It’s what she expected, having often hauled water from this well, but, she says, you never know when a routine activity will be interrupted by a nasty surprise. She unwinds a measuring tape into the tank. For a moment, from the vantage of the catwalk, I’m granted a bird’s-eye view of the surrounding country. Just outside the coral-colored gravel of the well site are patches of flax and sunflowers, then sealike fields of wheat, alfalfa, and canola, and beyond them, heavily eroded badlands through which the Missouri River has cut a wide, sweeping bend. The understated glory of the northern plains.
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Edwin Dobb covered a controversial mine in Alaska in December 2010. Eugene Richards portrayed the emptying of North Dakota in January 2008.