Seeing grey in a fractured land BookShelf: Lisa Westberg Peters on her family's complicated involvement in fracking
How did I resolve my own dilemma? One of the lions in the den had the best advice in just two words: Live simply. - Lisa Westberg Peters
by Lisa Westberg Peters
My father's death brought me one step closer to a predicament: his North Dakota mineral rights passed to my mother and someday they'll come to me, at which point I'll profit from fracked oil wells. The money would be great, but I'm also a conservationist who believes we should keep most of the rest of the world's fossil fuel in the ground.
The solution seemed simple: Sell my mineral rights and wash my hands of fracking and oil drilling. But when I began to research my family's history, I found a tale of misery: bankruptcies, foreclosures, and death by childbirth, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. I also discovered that my grandfather purchased North Dakota farmland in 1941 not for the wheat, but for the oil he knew was coming. His savvy gamble effectively vanquished decades of suffering. A copy of his first oil check sits in the family files.
This was going to be harder than I thought.
I talked with many western North Dakotans - farmers, families, geologists and fracking consultants - and their worries, frustrations and reasoned opinions introduced gray into what had seemed a black and white issue.
My editor hoped my book about my family experience would contribute to the national conversation about energy. And it did, in ways I didn't expect. Readers started sending me long, heartfelt messages: "I, too, feel conflict as I drive my car or read by electric lights," and "I work for the Oklahoma oil industry and I feel like I'm straddling a line" and "I'm a mineral rights owner and we always dreamed about an oil well. Now I'm not so sure."
A North Dakotan asked me to speak at a conference of mineral rights owners. Carry on this conversation in the lion's den? Forget it! But I was too curious not to accept. One of the speakers denounced the fracking bans, protests and regulations popping up across the country. "We need to fight anti-development forces!" she said, "Write to your congressman!" A hundred people who profit from oil development applauded and then turned their attention to lunch and the next speaker: me.
The conversation sputtered, stopped, then turned hostile. "Are you aware that solar panels require rare earth minerals?" (yes) "How would you like a wind turbine in your back yard?" (no) "Are you aware of the environmental impacts of wind farms?" (yes)
Mineral owners sidled up to me saying: "We needed to hear your point of view" and "You were just the right person to speak here because you're one of us."
I wished we could have expressed our common ground in public.
How did I resolve my own dilemma? One of the lions in the den had the best advice in just two words: Live simply. If we actually listened to him, his oil income - and eventually, mine - would plunge.
I hope to try.
Lisa Westberg Peters is an award-winning author and writing tutor living in Minneapolis. Her book, "Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil" was published in 2014 by Minnesota Historical Society Press. lisawestbergpeters.com
Editor's note: This essay was published previously in the U of M Alumni magazine. Used with permission.
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BOOKSHELF: Lisa Westberg Peters recommends these books by women authors and environmentalists: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer
Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert
Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert