Oil Rush A Cash Cow For Some Farmers, But Tensions Crop Up North Dakota's oil sector is booming, but agriculture remains the state's largest industry. And while many farmers and ranchers are profiting from the oil beneath the prairie, others complain that drilling is interfering with their business — and changing rural life as they know it.
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Oil Rush A Cash Cow For Some Farmers, But Tensions Crop Up

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Oil Rush A Cash Cow For Some Farmers, But Tensions Crop Up

Oil Rush A Cash Cow For Some Farmers, But Tensions Crop Up

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

This week, we're taking a close look at the oil rush in North Dakota. The state is pumping out more than 10 times as much oil as it was a decade ago. That makes it the number two state in crude production, behind Texas. Despite that growth, North Dakota's top industry is still agriculture. Many farmers and ranchers have benefited from the oil boom, some are even getting rich.

But as NPR's Jeff Brady reports, the boom has also created plenty of tension.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: We're on a ranch in western North Dakota, where a blue tractor is lifting a big, round bale of hay. This is the heart of the North Dakota oil boom. Deep below in the Bakken shale formation there are billions of barrels of oil, much of it now recoverable because of technologies like fracking. But above the ground, you'll often find cattle or durum wheat.

We're here to talk with Donny Nelson. He's a third-generation farmer and rancher. He says oil booms come with the territory, but usually they're not this intense.

DONNY NELSON: Oh yeah, this is a completely different animal than we've seen before. I've seen about three oil boom-busts.

BRADY: This is the third and now it's clear the boom is real and there's no sign of a bust yet. We leave the horses and drive about two-and-a-half miles to snow-covered fields. There, huge drilling rigs rise up as tall as grain elevators.

NELSON: Six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 in a row here.

BRADY: All those wells mean a lot more activity in a place that used to be very quiet. Nelson says this has hurt a key indicator for his cattle business: pregnancy rates. Most of his herd came in at 96 percent this year, except one field where there was construction and the number was much lower.

NELSON: I think it was because they run a pipeline straight, dead through the middle of the pasture. And they were young cows, should have been fine, and we only got about 55 percent on them. And they looked horrible when we brought them out of the pasture. They were skinny.

BRADY: Farmers learned of another downside to the oil boom this past harvest season: When space on railroads was at a premium. The state's rail system was built for agriculture, but now it's also hauling oil - a lot of oil. On top of that, the boom is transforming rural towns.

Marilyn Hudson has lived most of her 77 years in Parshall, North Dakota, on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

MARILYN HUDSON: Sometimes you drive through a small town in North Dakota, especially western North Dakota, and all you find is a bar and a senior center.

BRADY: Hudson says Parshall was headed that direction but now the two-lane highway nearby has a lot more traffic. And there's plans for a big new hotel. Hudson says that's prompting some longtime residents to move away.

HUDSON: They say we just don't want to put up with the dust, the traffic, the people, you know. And so, it has definitely changed the lifestyle.

BRADY: North Dakota's Republican governor, Jack Dalrymple, is a focus for many concerned about the effects of the drilling boom. Last year, some political opponents tried to launch a criminal investigation because of oil industry contributions his campaign received. But a judge dismissed their petition. And Dalrymple, who is a farmer himself, contends the oil boom also is helping agriculture.

GOVERNOR JACK DALRYMPLE: We're in the process of developing two huge nitrogen fertilizer plants in North Dakota.

BRADY: Along with oil, drillers are producing a lot of natural gas and that can be turned into fertilizer.

DALRYMPLE: That is nothing but great news. That means more nitrogen fertilizer available locally to our people.

BRADY: And Dalrymple points out that North Dakotans are becoming a lot richer. Per capita personal income in the state has more than doubled in the past decade to almost $55,000 a year. That's $10,000 more than the national average. Even farmers who don't own the rights to the oil under their land can earn extra money by charging drillers for using the surface.

NELSON: On the whole, I think most people have made adjustments and are taking advantage of the situation.

BRADY: Back on Donny Nelson's ranch, his family is earning royalties on the oil extracted from their land. But the extra money doesn't replace what's lost.

NELSON: I just think that if people had ever came here and looked at it, what it was before and what it is now, they'd be concerned. It's a unique area, changed forever now probably.

BRADY: Nelson says there's no sense in wishing the oil boom gone though, it's here and apparently won't be going bust anytime soon.

Jeff Brady, NPR News.

CORNISH: Our Oil Rush series continues on MORNING EDITION tomorrow with a look at the practice of burning off excess natural gas that's produced in the oil fields.


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