Breakin’ the Bakken

TIOGA Cottonwood seeds drifting on air throughout Tioga gave the impression that the town was still a calm place on the northern plains Wednesday, but it was anything but as hundreds of people filled the Neset Consulting warehouse in northern Tioga and a large tent right next to it to celebrate North Dakota recently breaking the one million barrel threshold.

According to a report issued June 17 by the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources, 30,034,469 barrels of oil were produced during the month of April. That amounts to about 1,001,149 barrels produced per day from 10,658 active wells, or a nearly 24,000 barrel increase in daily production over March.

The event in Tioga was free and open to the public. A grassy parking lot across the street from the Cashwise Foods quickly filled throughout the morning as people would park and enter a bus to be shuttled to the event site.

“Are they trying to get one person for every barrel of oil?” asked a man, laughing, as the bus was filled to standing-room only before embarking on its minutes-long journey.

The first thing people off the bus would notice were the Halliburton-emblazoned kitchens attached to corporate tractor trailers.

One of the cooks said that they had cooked 530 pounds of regular pork, 200 pounds of sausage, 20 gallons of beans and 200 hot dogs for the day’s event. They needed it, too, as the line went all the way around the circus-sized tent and stayed that long throughout the day.

The buns were the first to go, the Halliburton cook said, because he suspected they were using them for sausage in addition to the hot dogs. That wasn’t too much of a problem, though, because an officer with the Tioga Police Department made a bun run.

Before the food, though, there were some anthemic speeches peppered with doses of oilpatch history.

Opening speaker Ron Ness, the president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, promised that they would be “short on speeches and big on fun” at the event and, for the most part, he kept his promise.

Ness said that when various agencies surrounding the oil industry were deciding where to host the celebration, Tioga won out “because that’s where it all started.”

True stalwarts in the history of oil production were in attendence and were introduced by Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who added that he was pleased to be given the role of introduction because he doesn’t usually get to do so at these events.

Waving and sporting a big smile when his name was announced as an honored guest, Lorin Bakken is the only son of the late Henry Bakken, the Tioga farmer who first discovered the oil formation when he struck oil on his farm in 1951 and became the shale formation’s namesake.

Also in attendence were members of the Iverson family, who also struck oil near Tioga during the same period, but actually first. The Bakken formation that Henry Bakken struck on is only one level of a much larger and multi-tiered substrate called the Williston Basin. The Bakken and Iverson families struck oil in different formations.

The sons of Clarence Iverson didn’t let the oil get to much into their heads and they supported themselves through other means. Both oldest son Jim and youngest son, the late Don, stayed on the family farm and earned their livings that way. At the event Jim said that the well was just a small part of his life before he shipped off to Korea to fight in the war there. War wasn’t the only distraction, either, because months after the well took off he met Deanie, courted her and ended up marrying her three years later. They’ve now been married for 60 years.

Mary Ellen Iverson shared stories about her time with her husband, Don, before his passing. He, too, farmed but had moved out to New Town, just like Jim did.

Clifford, the middle son, was the one to remain in Tioga and also the son to stay with oil as his career. He was an administrative supervisor for the Amerada Hess Co. for 39 years, his wife, Debbie, said on his behalf. That’s what the Hess Corporation was known then when they struck that first well on the Iverson farm.

Keynote speaker Kathy Neset took the stage to go through the Bakken and Iverson family well histories and also to examine what has changed and what remains very similar from 60 years ago when oil first entered the state.

“Trucking has changed as you can see,” Neset said, getting a laugh from the crowd when she showed a slide featuring a man on a truly humble mode of transportation a horse and buggy.

Outside Tioga, trucks hauling everything from oil to fracking water and all sorts of other things needed in energy operation along U.S. Highway 2 helped prove her point. Another difference was the lack of safety equipment used by workers on the wells, which has changed as Neset asserts that companies now take safety very seriously. Similar to that time were the “mancamps” or “crewcamps,” big, temporary housing divisions that seem to pop up out of the ground to house the workers who flock to the state.

And there are many of those.

“We have a lot of educating to do,” Dalrymple said about how outsiders view what’s going on in the state. “This is not a dangerous thing we’re doing out here. It’s really well managed and safe … The prosperity that has come to this state is not just in this region, but the entire state.”

He noted that the state continues to have the lowest unemployment rate in the country and the fastest growing economy. He referenced recently published studies that declare North Dakota the “Happiest State” and the best place for young people.

“People appreciate where they live,” he said, adding that “we will keep taxes down and we will keep a reasonable regulation environment” so as to continue to accommodate new businesses and new jobs.

He wasn’t blind to ongoing problems, though. The state needs to get better with traffic and infrastructure issues, it needs to create more and better day care and to make housing more affordable, but told the audience that their “state is addressing that … Your legislature is going to do more … so I think you can look forward to that, but for now let’s have some fun celebrating one million barrels.”

After that, people flocked en masse to the tent outside for the food and to watch the Texas Flying Legends pass over the site in classic airplanes. The airshow was presented by Pietsch Airshows, Neset Consulting, the Minot Aero Center and the Dakota Territory Air Museum. Inside, they filled out slips of papers in hopes of having their names drawn for very limited seating in a few airplane flyovers of the Tioga area to show where the first wells were and how the region has changed. Live music was provided by the band Tin Star. One lucky Mississippi man not only had his name called to participate in a flyover but also secured the rights to one of, number 72, “The official million barrels shotgun,” of which there will only be 100 produced. There was an actual-firing commemorative rifle available, too, a Thompson Icon of which only 25 were produced. Both guns were made available by A&A Engraving of Rapid City, S.D.

For those who didn’t want to spend on the big-money souvenirs of the breakthrough in oil production, there was a bronzed, giant commemorative coin available for everyone who showed up. The coin proved popular, and even made an appearance at WildcatZ Grill in Tioga later in the day when one man joked that he wanted to purchase a burger “with this cool coin I just got.”