By Steven Mufson, Published: July 18
KEENE, N.D. — Donny Nelson is the epitome of old-time North Dakota. A lean, sharp-featured man sporting a thick goatee, jeans and dirty boots, Nelson is the grandson of homesteaders. Over the past century his family has collected 8,000 acres of prime cattle grazing acreage and cropland.
But now Nelson has some unwanted company: Oil prospectors.
This remote corner of North Dakota is the site of the biggest U.S. oil rush in decades. It is pumping new supplies into oil markets and swelling state coffers; advocates say it could help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil. But the boom is also spreading a degree of chaos across the rural towns and gently undulating pasturelands here.
Two towering oil rigs are drilling holes on Nelson’s property. One of the rigs, alongside two rows of 25-foot storage tanks, is planted on a red dirt pad, or clearing, right below a majestic butte that Native Americans over the ages have visited for ceremonial fasts. When they were kids, Donny and his brother climbed up and carved their names on the flat-topped butte next to others going back to 1880.
This is Nelson’s land, but he won’t see any money from those wells, or nearly a dozen others that firms are planning to drill. The mineral rights were sold years ago, starting in the 1950s, when oil was discovered in North Dakota. Nelson and his family have leased out rights they do own, and his share of the royalties from four wells comes to about $8,000 a month.
It’s a modest sum, he said, for the headaches that go with it. He’s squabbled with oil companies over drilling waste, a saltwater spill and decades-old storage tanks eaten away by chemicals.
“I’d give it all back if I could for all the trouble it’s been,” said Nelson, 48.
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