Today’s post is one of a series of personal stories on this site about how the shale oil and gas boom has affected the lives of the people in the communities that are touched by drilling. It was written by reporter Renee Jean, and first appeared in the Williston Herald on September 26, 2015.
The experience of farmer Dennis Johnsrud provides clear evidence of the need for greater local regulation of oil and gas operators. We have shown often that, even more than North Dakota, the state of Montana largely ignores personal property rights, and provides few protections for water, air, soil and land. Without local regulation, communities risk long-term declines in standard of living, lower educational attainment and higher crime rates.
A personal story: Dennis Johnsrud, Williston, ND
The first thing Dennis Johnsrud hears anytime a pipeline company wants to site a line on his property is that they are there to ‘work with the farmers.’
“It’s a red flag to me now,” Johnsrud says on a fair-weather Thursday afternoon in a wheat field full of golden stubble. “The last 10 guys said that, and it never happened.”
There is a trail of broken promises tracking through Johnsrud’s fields. He says he’s telling his story because, if farmers won’t speak up, the story will only be told by the other side, and no one will realize the realities farmers are facing in an economy that is increasingly harsh and unforgiving to the families who have shepherded this land for generations.
Johnsrud’s grandfather came to America in 1906 and dug a hole in the ground roofed by a shack. That’s where he lived for five years, proving out his land.
“It took solid people to settle this 109 years ago,” he said. “That’s what really built this community.”
Among the areas Johnsrud visits in this trail of broken promises is a pig launcher sited in the middle of a field he farms for a property owner. Their families have been friends for more than 90 years.
The owner had given a company permission to put the pig launcher on an adjacent tract in an end corner, where it wouldn’t have posed Johnsrud’s combining activity much issue. A stake with white tape fluttering in the breeze marks a spot near where the launcher was supposed to go.
The company simply ignored the property owner’s wishes, Johnsrud said, and decided to ask for forgiveness later, so they could put the launcher wherever they wanted it.
Johnsrud said the company did the same thing on land he owned, but as the landowner, he could insist it be taken out. On rented land, he had no such authority. He did advise the landowner, who is a friend, to require additional compensation.
“I didn’t get any of that money,” Johnsrud said. “But at least they had to pay some damages for doing that.”
To farm that area, Johnsrud has to go around it three times with a combine. Maybe that wouldn’t be a big deal. Just one little spot. Except that it’s happening all over his fields. One of his largest fields is now six smaller ones.
The company that put in the pig launcher now wants a road to it. Yet more division for that field — and less yield.
One big field is now two smaller ones
“This is all in the middle of what used to be one big field,” he says. “Now it’s two smaller fields, and it takes more time to combine. That’s all non-productive time with big equipment.”
Big equipment uses a lot of fuel. Spread that time out over all the acres, and it begins to add up to a lot of extra fuel.
Johnsrud estimates he’s spent $7,000 extra in fuel to smooth over pipeline issues in fields that he cannot get any help with. That’s not counting the extra spent for going around above-ground structures.
In another area of this same field lie some bare stretches where sterilant has painted abstract, dark fingers into golden stalks of wheat stubble. The sterilant was sprayed onto a nearby well pad to prevent growth of weeds, but it’s running off, down into the most productive areas of the field.
“It runs off into fields and kills whatever is growing,” Johnsrud explains. “There’s never been a washout here before, but now we have one.”
Near this newly washed-up area, there’s also a bowl in the dirt, probably 20-feet in circumference and a foot or two deep.
“When the dirt compresses, you can put it back in a hole, but you never have enough to fill the hole again,” Johnsrud says. “They are starting to recognize that and haul in black dirt. But a lot of times, they just come in and blade it so it looks nice and flat. But really, all it’s done is, you’ve stolen dirt to fill your low spot from other areas of the field. And then nothing will grow in that spot still yet, because the soil structure has changed. It packs differently, and basically, it won’t fill the hole any more either.”
This type of caving in can create dangerous dips in the field. When a combine header goes over that, it rocks up, then slams into the ground with some force, even if a driver was going at a modest pace. And if there are rocks in those dips …
“Whenever a pipeline is being laid, they tell you they will pick the rocks out, but the reality is, they drive over and cover as many as they can. The first time you seed it, those rocks will come up,” Johnsrud says. “So you have dips like that, and you run your header into it. It bounces down, and then the rocks run up into it. That’s really bad. These bother me more than almost anything else.”
Johnsrud flips through his iPhone and shows a picture of his son, standing in a hole that’s opened up in a field where a pipeline was put in.
“They always say, we’ll pack the trench,” Johnsrud said, shaking his head, holding up the phone. “I don’t think so.”
Holes like that are particularly dangerous. They may not be visible once a crop is tall, and can easily destroy the unsuspecting six-figure implement that runs over it — not to mention the risk to the unsuspecting driver.
Johnsrud flips to another picture showing a cable, about as thick as an arm, sticking straight up in the air two feet — about the same height as a crop. It was a dead electrical line, so the workers preparing the land for the pipeline had cut it, as allowed, and chopped it up. But then they left that piece behind.
“If you didn’t notice that and it got into the header?” Johnsrud shakes his head. “Why would you leave something like that? Well, I know they have help problems, too. Anything out there like that, we usually just take care of it ourselves because it’s hard on equipment and the fuel efficiency is a big issue.”
North Dakota ombudsman program provides some assistance
These types of problems have been compounded by a confused criss-crossing of lines. A criss-cross that has been sold and sold again to new companies, making it difficult for a lay person to track down any responsible party.
Whenever Johnsrud calls a company he thinks owns a line, most of the time he’s told he’s called the wrong party — even if he knows he’s called the right one. That’s one reason he is glad the state has finally started a pipeline program to help farmers with these issues. Now farmers have someone to call and help them resolve some of these issues. Ombudsmen are located in Williston, Velva, Glen Allen, Minot and Bismarck.
“That ombudsmen program works,” Jonsrud said.
His son brought the ombudsman stationed in Williston out to a field in the spring when a pipeline company he called was unresponsive. The ombudsman brought a pipeline representative to view the problem. In front of the ombudsman, Jonsrud said, the pipeline representative chastised Dennis’ son for not calling sooner.
“Wait a second,” he told him. “I called you two weeks ago and got no response, and I called you last week and got no response.”
Johnsrud said the pipeline representative got a bit sheepish then.
Some of the fields Johnsrud farms happen to be on a pipeline corridor, so they have had to deal with a larger share of pipeline issues than some.
“My neighbor probably has less than 20 miles of pipelines,” Johnsrud said. “I’m probably dealing with three times that amount. And some of it is on land I don’t own but am farming for someone else.”
To give some idea of the magnitude, he points to an area one-half mile by one-half mile.
“That probably has 4 miles of pipeline running through it,” he says.
As a renter, he’d have some legal rights to related damage money to help pay for costs to fix problems, but he believes the farmer who insists on getting such compensation — or even goes to court for it — may not have land to farm the next year.
“You do your best to try to get along and try to get these things resolved,” Dennis Johnsrud said. “You try to be the problem-solver.”