Daryl and Christine Peterson have lost over $1 million in farmland value from produced water spills.
On a bright July day, Daryl Peterson stood four feet deep in his farm field. Wheat stalks waved in the breeze near his head as he held a yard stick showing the depth of a pit an oil company gouged out of his field. The excavation was the result of a brine, or “produced water” spill from a pipeline crossing his land which killed acres of crops and poisoned his soil.
The top soil, a precious commodity in North Dakota, had to be hauled away to a disposal facility. “I would say this is prime land,” Daryl said. “This is what we grow our food on, we are an agriculture state. Now we’re becoming an oil state, but this is where good food comes from and they’re taking out really good property and ruining it and the amount of land getting ruined by development is getting bigger and bigger.”
“This is where good food comes from and they’re taking out really good property and ruining it.”
Daryl and Christine Peterson have farmed in Antler, North Dakota, for most of their lives and were no strangers to oil and gas fields. “I’ve lived there my whole life,” Peterson said. “I have been around the oil fields in that area for the past 60 years. I would travel to the sites with my dad.” Oil development began in Bottineau County in the mid-1950s. The Petersons’ neighbors had oil and gas development on their farms, but when a small boom hit, drilling started on their property, too. And while they’ve supported the industry and supported responsible development of oil, they were quick to point out regulatory shortcomings.
“I think our state leaders throughout this whole boom have made some huge mistakes,” Daryl said. “They couldn’t wait to double the size of Williston or Minot. And now look at all the problems those cities are facing infrastructure-wise. I think the whole United States; if we would’ve had an orderly development nationwide, we may not have had this huge crash in prices. I’m ashamed of North Dakota for allowing companies to flare off the amount of viable resources. It makes no sense except greed.”
“I’m ashamed of North Dakota for allowing companies to flare off the amount of viable resources. It makes no sense except greed.”
Flaring has been a problem for both the Petersons and communities throughout western North Dakota, but the biggest impacts to the Petersons operation have come from produced wastewater spills. Produced water, often called brine, is a toxic byproduct of crude oil production, primarily consisting of sodium and chloride. These compounds can change the structure of the soil so that the plants are unable to absorb nutrients and water. Any accidental release can result in devastating damage to agricultural land and the contamination of water resources. These spills are much more common, and more destructive than oil spills.
The Petersons’ farm has experienced more than twelve documented produced water spills (each two thousand gallons or more of released brine) resulting in more than a million dollars in lost land value. “Saltwater spills are ruining our land and each spill is growing every year like cancer,” Daryl said. “Responsible development means protecting the land from the destructive impacts of brine spills.”
As surface property owners, the Petersons didn’t own the mineral rights and didn’t see the benefits of the oil production. They’ve only been hit with the impacts. “Development should not do this much harm to the land. Reclamation standards in North Dakota are such that even if the oil companies meet those minimum standards we farmers still can’t grow the crops we want to grow on certain land.”
“Nobody from our government is truly holding industry responsible for the losses to our property from oil and saltwater spills,” Christine said. “Here is an analogy that I give people to understand our situation: You get pulled over by Highway Patrol and you are told you were going too fast, and the Highway Patrol tells you to slow down and lets you go. That is how our government deals with oil and gas companies that spill oil and saltwater on farmers land.”
“You get pulled over by Highway Patrol and you are told you were going too fast, and the Highway Patrol tells you to slow down and lets you go. That is how our government deals with oil and gas companies that spill oil and saltwater on farmers land.”
Daryl held a similar view. “To me, a conservative philosophy is that you don’t want too much government, but you should be held within the bounds of the law,” he said. “The problems that we are facing right now are because our regulators are not even requiring companies to follow the rules we have on the books. And when you try to get the regulators to enforce the rules or get a new rule put in place, industry complains about too much government. I just want oil and gas companies to follow the rules and be held accountable when they do not.”
As oil and gas development began surging again in the late 2010s, Daryl came up advice for anyone dealing with oil companies moving on to their land. “I would ask that they take an interest in protecting their farms,” he said. “I would also invite them to come up and do a tour of my land. That will allow them to see the damage that has already been done to my land and show them the urgent need to get protections before development starts.”