Western North Dakota is an unforgiving place, a reason that it is one of the least populated regions in the contiguous United States with less than four people per square kilometer. Crossing its rocky, mountainous landscape, the early pioneers coined the area “badlands” and most residents today would agree on the accuracy of the moniker. The land has always required a grueling work ethic from its farmers and ranchers, fostering within them a profound respect for the land and the work of their forefathers.
For over a hundred years the people of Western North Dakota have struggled to survive financially off the land, but the discovery of oil has not been the golden ticket that its occupants might imagine. Mini-oil booms have occurred sporadically since the 1950s, however farmers and ranchers who leased their land more often than not found their oil wells quickly dried up and their landscapes marred. The current boom owes its existence entirely to new method of drilling called “hydraulic fracturing” or “fracking”, which involves pumping high-pressured water and chemicals into the earth to fracture oil-rich shale rock. The result has been an amount of drilling unequivocal to anything seen in past booms. In a single decade North Dakota went from 38th to 17th in per capita income and currently has the lowest unemployment in the entire United States.
There has always been a trade-off for the people of North Dakota in that in order to financially benefit from what is beneath a resident’s land, they have to sacrifice a large portion of the surface used for grazing or farming. What is unique in North Dakota is that the farmers and ranchers who own the land surface often do not own what is below it: the minerals. These may be owned by a neighbor or someone far across the other side of the country. This schism in property rights leaves surface owners with very few of the economic benefits of drilling and absolutely no ability to forbid the extraction of these minerals.