When the landscape is quiet again: North Dakota’s oil boom

  • Flaring near the Blue Buttes, Jan. 2015. Much of North Dakota’s natural gas is being flared off into the atmosphere due to a lack of infrastructure. Legislation enacted in 2014 has curbed the overall amount being flared from 36% to around 18% now. However, these measures were relaxed by North Dakota’s Industrial Commission this fall. 
  • A corn field in Bottineau County, Sept. 2013 
  • A well site carved out of bluffs near the Badlands, August 2013. The Lakota called this area “mako sica” or “land bad.” French-Canadian fur trappers did the same, claiming these were “bad lands to travel through” because of the rugged terrain. Although no drilling is taking place in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, the noises and sight of oil development along its borders are clear. 
  • Sweet Crude Travel Center, July 2014.
  • Saltwater-damaged farmland near Antler, September 2013. The brown and bare patches of land at the center of the image show the extent of saltwater spills and their sterilizing effects. According to researchers, saltwater spills like this will continue to infect the soil like cancer, despite repeated reclamation efforts.
  • A drilling rig near Little Missouri National Grasslands, May 2013. 
  • One million gallons of saltwater spilled, Ft. Berthold Reservation, July 2014. This toxic wastewater flowed downhill over two miles to Bear Den Bay, part of Lake Sakakawea, leaving a swath of dead trees & vegetation in its wake. Officials do not believe the contamination reached the tribe’s freshwater intake from the lake, but locals are skeptical of these claims. 
  • This oil well is identified as Cheryl 14-23 1H, operated by Zavanna LLC. 
  • Intermediate reclamation on new wells, McKenzie County, August 2013. After a new well is operational, companies may perform an intermediate reclamation: the overall size of the well pad is reduced by returning some of the surrounding land back to its former use. In the springtime, farmers will once again be able to plant in the areas of black dirt ringing around the scoria pad. 
  • Man camp and frac sand depot, McKenzie County, July 2014. 
  • A saltwater pipeline spill in Bottineau County, September 2013. As the infrastructure from prior booms ages, an increasing number of spills are happening because of poorly maintained and monitored equipment. This 24-year-old pipeline ruptured when it became clogged with oil, causing saltwater and oil to contaminate the surrounding farmland. 
  • Billboard seen on the side of the road in Glenburn, North Dakota.
  • Pioneer Terminal Transloading Facility, New Town, July 2014. 
  • Snow Bird Cemetery, Ft. Berthold Reservation, New Town, North Dakota. Setback laws for oil wells, equipment, and businesses apply only to occupied dwellings. The fence does little to separate grieving tribal members from the noise and fumes of the semi-trucks in the storage yard behind it. 
  • A natural gas flare in White Earth River Valley, September 2013.
  • An oil waste pit near Cartwright, March 2012. Almost every well site in North Dakota has a waste pit, which contains all the rock, mud, and cuttings removed from underground during the drilling process. Approximately 650 tons of waste material is generated per well. “Flash,” or fly ash, is added to solidify the contents and prevent contaminants from migrating into the soil and groundwater. The pits are also lined with a high-grade plastic. After the well is finished, companies have one year to bury and reclaim these pits. The result is thousands of small landfills being buried across the landscape. 
  • A pickup truck is abandoned in the Little Missouri National Grasslands, July 2014. Off-roaders launched this truck off a 100-foot cliff in the Grasslands, where vehicle use is restricted to established trails. In September, someone blew it up with Tannerite, a high velocity explosive. Both of these acts are federal crimes. 
  • The Jorgenson’s backyard in May, 2013, after Alliance Pipeline seized their “best land” through eminent domain. ”We had to check the wind everyday, because you don’t know what was in that stuff. It just interferes with the normal things in your life like going for walks, hanging out the laundry. I used to go cross-country skiing, horseback riding. Our horses don’t want to go anywhere near those wells,” said Brenda Jorgenson.
  • An abandoned shed and oil drums on the photographer’s family’s homestead, January 2015. 
  • Tioga Natural Gas Plant in northwestern North Dakota, September 2013.



World leaders have gathered in Paris for the United Nations climate change conference, where they are expected to produce a landmark agreement on limiting rising global temperatures. From Nov. 30 to Dec. 11, more than 100 leaders will resume talks that have failed for years.

The scientific research supporting global warming is undeniable. The past three decades have been the hottest on record and 2015 is expected to set a new record. Global energy demands, and the means by which we meet them – from burning oil, gas and coal – have contributed to a rise in sea levels and shifting weather patterns.

Rising energy demands have led to new methods of extracting natural resources from beneath the earth’s surface. In North Dakota, an oil boom has exploded in recent years, as hydraulic fracturing has altered the landscape – both physically and economically – and the state’s quiet agrarian landscape has been transformed into an industrial zone dotted with well sites, criss-crossed by pipelines, lit up by natural gas flares, and contaminated by oil and saltwater spills. The Bakken oil field is currently pumping out over a million barrels per day from over 10,000 active wells, and companies may drill thousands more, though demand and output from the Bakken has slowed dramatically in recent months.

Since 2012, photographer Sarah Christianson has been documenting the legacy of oil booms and busts in her home state. As a fourth generation North Dakotan whose family has been profiting from oil wells drilled on land her great-grandparents homesteaded in 1912, Christianson has borne witness to the successful and profitable extraction of resources from her state’s land. But she also asks: “What are the hidden costs of this prosperity?” Massive spills, oil train explosions, and worker fatalities are only some of the scars that have been inflicted on North Dakotans and on the men and women who moved there to take advantage of economic opportunity. What is the cost people are willing to pay for economic gain? What are the environmental sacrifices we are willing to accept in the name of technological progress? These are some of the difficult questions that not only North Dakotans must ask, but that the world leaders who have gathered in Paris will have to answer in the coming days.

For more feature photography, go to msnbc.com/photography