Seeing Gray

From Minnesota Alumni Magazine Spring 2016

By Lisa Westberg Peters, Illustration by Ilana Blady


Normally I hate dilemmas, but as a writer I love them. I tried to keep that in mind a few years back when 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 Great Plains history for my book, Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil, I found a wrenching 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 and successful 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.

And there was more. 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 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.

Book clubs invited me to join their discussions. One northern Minnesota group asked if I would donate oil royalties to fight a proposed pipeline. Another group of well-to-do St. Paulites avoided all mention of environmental dilemmas—mine or theirs—for an hour and a half. Later one member said to me privately, Loved your book. Just don’t take away my flights.

A North Dakota mineral rights owner asked me to speak at a conference of mineral 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.

I was so nervous, I lost both my appetite and my grip on caution. I told them I agreed with the previous speaker. Be pro-development, but let’s support the next energy industry with our oil money. My family did, I said, and I showed them pictures of our geo-thermal system.

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)

I just wanted to get out of there, but the conversation wasn’t over; it went underground. Mineral owners sidled up to me saying: I like to scuba dive, but these days I feel guilty flying to Indonesia for such a frivolous pursuit and 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? I devote whole scenes in my book to that task, but 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.

But I hope to try.

Lisa Westberg Peters (B.A. ’74) is an award-winning author and writing tutor living in Minneapolis.


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