5000 words


Looking out the window, 35,000ft in the air, far below I saw the blue shimmering sea and the coastline of Greenland. I enjoy flying, mainly for this reason. I love to peer out the window on long-haul flights and often do so for hours, taking advantage of these uninterrupted views of our blue planet. Gazing down onto parts of the world that look untouched and undisturbed. Where human activity does not rule. To appreciate the vastness of this wilderness there is no other way to view it than from above. On this occasion, I refocussed my attention from what I saw in the distance and looked a little closer. My seat was just behind the wing of the plane, and in the foreground of my view were the engines.

We can take flying for granted, quite easily. All we have to do is turn up on time, sit in our seat, watch a few films, read a book, eat some food from our laps, and get off at the other end as if everything is normal. However, I cannot recall a time on a flight previous to this one, when I boarded a plane wanting to calculate how much jet fuel would be burnt on my transatlantic flight. But that is exactly what I did. I must have stared at those engines for hours.

I was heading for Minneapolis where I would catch a connecting flight another few hundred miles to Bismarck, in North Dakota. This was the closest city I could fly to, and where I would begin my project along an oil pipeline, which started in Stanley another 180 miles north. It was to be an unconventional journey. One that would take me to parts of the USA that tourists rarely visit, following a route that has no map (at least not one available to buy), but definitely has a start and a finish. To add to the madness, I would be travelling by bicycle. Reaching the end would mean being the only person in the world to have ever cycled from the start to the end of the Dakota Access Pipeline. All to gain a better understanding of where oil comes from, the path it takes before it is transformed into its various byproducts.

Oil is everywhere. How the world ended up being so reliant on it, is a long and complicated story. Instead of trying to condense years of political, economical, geographical and scientific research into one essay, I have decided to concentrate on a smaller section of the subject. I wanted to share my reasons for embarking on such an ambitious journey, hopefully answering the question as to why I chose to document such a highly controversial subject in a country that I don’t even live in.

It all started for me on 24th January 2017, when Donald J Trump signed several memoranda concerning pipelines in the USA, promising “a lot of jobs, 28,000 jobs…” in construction. One memorandum, signed by the President within his first week of office, gave approval for the completion of a 1,170-mile long pipeline, allowing oil to flow from North Dakota to Illinois. Otherwise known as the Dakota Access Pipeline. I needed to understand why Donald Trump was so eager to sign this particular memorandum, and how completion would affect the communities of people living within close proximity to the pipe.

Bear with me for a moment, whilst I unscramble (as best I can) the complexity of the shareholders involved in the pipeline. Dakota Access LLC (owning 75%) and Phillips 66 (owning 25%) are the major partners. However, Dakota Access LLC is owned by Energy Transfer Partners & Sunoco Logistic Partners, and MarEn Bakken Company. MarEn Bakken Company is itself a joint investment by Enbridge and Marathon Petroleum. This mix of direct and indirect stakeholders opens up plenty of opportunity for financial investments from wealthy individuals, who own shares in these companies and as a result benefit from profits produced by the Dakota Access Pipeline. The more oil the extract, the more money they make. These companies alone were not wholly responsible for funding the construction of the project. Large sums of money also came from various bank loans - Wells Fargo, Citibank, Royal Bank of Scotland, ING Bank and ABN AMRO, to name a few. Upon completion huge profits were predicted, including for Continental Resources, whose CEO is Harold Hamm. During Donald Trump’s rise to become the Republican nominee, and eventually President, Hamm donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump’s Campaign. Frighteningly, Hamm was also considered at one point, by Trump, to become the United States Secretary of Energy. Other donations to Trump’s Presidential Campaign came from Energy Transfer Partner’s CEO, Kelcy Warren.

It’s clear that personal financial gains for Donald Trump were a possible reason as to why he was so eager to get the pipeline up and running. Not only did he have close ties within the fossil fuels industry, he had also disclosed investments in several companies involved in the ownership of the Dakota Access Pipeline, such as Phillips 66, and Energy Transfer Partners.

With this part investigated, and with a better understanding of the President’s overall intentions, research then moved towards my other, main concerns. The environmental impact from the construction process disrupting the land could be devastating. More fossil fuels inevitably means more CO2 emissions not only nationally, but on a global scale. With many countries looking to lower their carbon emissions to comply with the Paris Climate Agreement it seemed that Donald Trump’s American vision would be doing the exact opposite, beginning with these heavy investments in fossil fuels. But, as he stated, it would mark the start of his effort to generate thousands of jobs in construction for so many American citizens who were currently out of work. The pipeline was sold as being beneficial to local communities, no longer leaving them feeling neglected, but instead providing them with a much more stable local economy. The purpose of my journey was to see if this was true.

Back on the plane, several hours into the flight, I was handed a cup of tea. “It’s just a cup of tea”, I told myself. “A harmless, soothing, refreshing cup of tea. Served to me in a plastic cup. With a plastic straw to stir it.” I looked to my left along my row. Everyone had a cup of tea or coffee, everyone had their very own plastic straw. This was also our second serving of hot beverages. I tried to switch off and enjoy my drink, but I couldn’t stop thinking about all the disposable plastic items used on our flight. Not only was I staring at the jet engines firing out all that CO2, I was now obsessing over the packaging.

It isn’t normal to feel such a level of guilt over a cup of tea. By drinking it I wasn’t breaking the law, so why was my conscience giving me such a hard time? Why wasn’t anyone else bothered about it? I looked out of the window trying to distract myself, staring at the deep blue sea. It didn’t help. I was quickly imagining those huge gyres of floating plastic and waste circulating in our oceans. It is all one vicious cycle, and there’s no escaping it. I put on a film to divert my thoughts in the hope that I’d get through the rest of the flight without wanting to blame every single passenger, myself included, for contributing to the world’s growing problem of plastic waste. I knew, deep down, we weren’t entirely to blame.

When the air hostess came back, she took my cup, but I decided to keep the straw, adding to the one from my previous cup of tea. She gave me an odd look. “I don’t have a bookmark, this will come in handy,” I said. I was certain she thought I was completely bonkers.

These small considerations about the creation and consumption of plastic goods, along with the build-up of household waste, have been slowly, bubbling away in the back of my mind for several years now. I’m not a scientist, but I have a huge desire to learn. In the past I have turned to more accessible scientific literature in order to gain a better understanding of the damaging impact humans have on the environment. Take the book Environmental Science for Dummies1, for example. I am a science dummy, so I thought it would be a good place to start. It gives an extremely well-rounded description, from a fact-based, scientific perspective, of the role we play in the everchanging and varied eco-systems that make up the Earth’s environment. It was from this book that I learnt about spheres of sustainability. (Imagine three spheres, all overlapping, with sustainability in the middle where all three spheres meet. Each sphere represents one of sustainability’s main influences - Environmental, Economic, and Social. All three influences should be equally balanced when considering whether an option is sustainable.) Sustainability, or something that is sustainable, is not an uncommon word to stumble upon these days. It can be applied to pretty much anything, from materials for manufacturing goods, farming methods that are environmentally friendly, to sustainable sources of energy that can provide power to towns, cities, and (in some cases) almost entire countries. We only have to think of how Sweden has revolutionised the renewable energy sector, cutting their reliance on oil and switching to wind, solar, geothermal, bio-fuels, wave power and small hydro-electric plants. Even many of their large scale Swedish businesses are now backing green energy. I’m sure the Spheres of Sustainability method was of high importance when they were considering their options for a cleaner future. “The goal for many professionals working in environmental science is to find ways for these three spheres to overlap cooperatively toward the common good.” (Spooner, A.M. 2012) Sadly, for oil, there are spheres that heavily outweigh others. Like the economic sphere, where profit and economic growth become more important for big businesses than the considerations of environmental damage and pollution. Even though profits from oil are still in the billions, oil does not offer sustainable economic growth, due to the fact that it does not come from a renewable source. Instead, we can view profits from oil as a way of boosting a country’s economy quickly, with the damaging effects of increased carbon emissions long outlasting any financial gain. Again, I found myself questioning America’s continued relationship to fossil fuels and Donald Trump’s initial intentions for completing the pipeline.

Before setting off for America I was able to create a detailed plan of my journey. Although, finding a reliable map of the Dakota Access Pipeline, that was accessible to the public, proved difficult. I stumbled upon a valuable source via www.bakkenpipelinemap.com, which, for some reason, is no longer active. Designed by Nitin Gadia, a resident of Ames, Iowa, it provided a highly accurate route of the pipeline from start to finish. From this I was able to generate cycling routes that enabled me to ride as close as possible to the pipe. There were times, however, when I would not cross paths with the pipe for many days, due to the fact that it crossed land that, in some places, was difficult to gain access to by bicycle. On many of these roads a heavy duty 4x4 truck would have done the trick, but my choice to cycle meant I would refrain from sitting behind the wheel of a car. I am not denying the fact that it feels good to rev the motor of a good, old fashioned combustion engine, especially that of an American muscle car. But I had to stick to my morals. The compromise, though, was that I wouldn’t be able to follow every single bend and turn of the pipe, or witness every acre of land the pipeline passed through. The sections I could gain access to became much more valuable areas to document.

Cycling, though, was not just a means to an end for the trip. I didn’t want it to become the focus of the project, but the benefits of being on two wheels, rather than four, were numerous. Obviously the fact I wasn’t relying on petrol was a start. Other than that, it allowed me to travel at a much slower pace, taking in every detail of the towns and villages I passed through. I noticed that petrol stations became central hubs within smaller communities, with most locals stopping for fast food rather than fuel. Although I rarely bought anything from them, ironically, these petrol stations did become places of refuge for me along the route, and at times saved me from instances of severe weather. North Dakota is a state that became famous for its vast open fields, quiet prairie land and family run farms that grew a variety of grains. The landscape was originally shaped by gentle rolling hills, golden fields and tall grain elevators. The small towns and villages were the epitome of rural America, with slow moving farm traffic chugging along the winding country roads, with close-knit communities living a life of solitude and routine, in safe neighbourhoods. That was until the 1950s when it all changed, in a dramatic way. The inspiring views across the land still exist, and the summer sunsets continue to dapple the sky with fantastic spectrums of colour, but they are no longer uninterrupted. The horizon, especially looking west, now includes a heavily industrialised presence in the form of slow moving oil pumpjacks, bright burning fracking flares, and gas guzzling lorries and trucks that kick up dust as they speed along the gravel roads between the oil pads. As you venture deeper into Oil Country you become surrounded by the industry. Grain elevators, the only remnants of North Dakota’s farming history, seem to be disintegrating, swept aside as the land becomes hijacked by oil pads and pipelines. The pipelines acting like intoxicating, artificial veins, disturbing and breaking the true roots of the land that once created life on the surface.

Only a few days in to my trip I found myself at the very epi-centre of one of the major contributors towards climate change on the planet. This sleepy rural state was transformed overnight, as large corporations began trawling the land, hoping to extract oil from some of the deepest wells in the country. Wenonah Hauter, author of Frackopoly 2 describes the extraction of oil, and the process known as fracking, to be “reshaping the landscape, irrevocably polluting the environment and damaging historical sites.” (Hauter, 2016) Personally, having now visited North Dakota, I couldn’t agree more. Even the postcards have pictures of pumpjacks and flares, albeit taken with a rather beautiful sunset on the horizon. Much of the land that’s still farmed has also been industrialised by large corporations controlling the crops using high-yield fertilisers and pesticides (likely made from petrochemicals), like most of the rural land I pass through in South Dakota, Iowa and Illinois. Oil was first drilled in North Dakota in 1951, so these changes to the landscape are still relatively new.

Unsurprisingly, since the discovery, my project is not the first time the oil boom in North Dakota has been covered by some form of journalism. In late 1951, a journalist called Leo Borah wrote a piece titled North Dakota Comes into Its Own for National Geographic Magazine. Focussing primarily on the farming industry, combining Borah’s uplifting journalistic writing with photographs by J. Baylor Roberts, the piece barely touches on the states oil reserves. The colour photographs and the language of the text combine beautifully together to present a piece that would not look out of place in a travel brochure aimed at young families. Fast-forward to March 2013, and National Geographic’s coverage of North Dakota has drastically changed. Roberts’ images of smiling children, posing near the family’s red hay barn, have been swapped for Eugene Richards’ photographs of empty playground swings just yards from an oil pad. The photographs give a more post-apocalyptic impression, with no hint of the close connection and appreciation of the land that once existed. Also conveniently avoiding the matter of climate change when interviewing those who rely on the oil industry as a reliable source of income. Fast-forward once again to 2017, to my trip. I found North Dakota to have remained in a similar state, minus the families. The towns were now occupied by working men, whose families lived in other parts of the country hundreds of miles away. Parks and swimming pools were deserted, and the only fulltime residents were retirees from previous oil booms who’d made their money, but decided to stay. There were very few signs of the farming communities that once thrived, other than a museum in Stanley that remained closed unless you phoned up to arrange a private tour.

On the 23rd August 2017, I stood at the fenceline to the Patoka Terminal, in Illinois, facing the familiar yellow sign that I’d followed along the entire route. After a total of approximately 1,600 miles of cycling, and 32 days on the road sleeping under the stars, the feeling of standing just feet from the end of the pipeline was almost overwhelming. At the same time I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed too. Although this was the end point of the pipeline, the project didn’t seem to have concluded. After propping up my bike against the fence, and ensuring I’d documented enough of the area, the decision was made to head north to the town of Vandalia for a well earned rest. The next day I had to get from Vandalia to Effingham, along US Highway 40, an old road that connects the two towns. It is an area of significant historical value, made famous due to Abraham Lincoln’s time in Vandalia studying law. The highway, too, once served as the cross-state road, used by Lincoln, as well as an agricultural route for farms transporting goods to market in larger towns. But, in terms of the oil trail, it wasn’t until I reached a town called St Elmo that everything started to fall into place.

As I coasted along the quiet road, to my surprise I heard that familiar sound of a pumpjack, slowly rising and falling. I spotted it ticking away in a field next to me. Then I saw another. And another. Without realising it, I was back in oil country. These pumpjacks were much smaller than those in North Dakota, and there was no security or high-tech monitoring devices attached to these ones. They looked old and tired, and reminded me of a draught horse, coming to the end of its working life, struggling to pull the wagon, ready to collapse. The pumpjacks squeaked, groaned and scratched, almost as if the maintenence crew had applied the last coating of oil to the working parts and now expected them to seize up in the coming months as the harsh winter storms froze the land and anything else that was left exposed. Further on I discovered an oil junk yard, full of tanks, and pumpjacks, and barrels. Next to this was a row of abandoned homes with overgrown gardens.

A few miles down the road I pulled over at a fruit stand where I chatted to the owners, who kept passing me huge, freshly cut, juicy slices of watermelon. There was another man present there too. Steve was his name. He was intrigued by my bike, and wanted to know where I was heading. I told him that I was about 10 miles away from the end and that I was catching a train to Chicago for my flight home. I proceeded to tell him about the project, the journey I’d been on, the people I’d met and the things I’d learned. It was then that he told me the history of the oil industry in the surrounding area.

“My father moved here in the 30s,” he said. “He owned a trucking company, which eventually we ran together. When the town was booming from the oil production, in the 40s, Illinois was one of the highest producers in the country. I ended up servicing pumps and staying out here. But the oil didn’t last long and the wells have been on the decline ever since.”

He tells me how some of the pumps still run, but there’s not a huge quantity of oil produced in Illinois any more. Most pumps in the area are now going through a period of decommissioning, and abandonment. When a well doesn’t produce enough oil to cover its costs, they close it, using cement to fill the bore holes, welding the top, and burying what’s left. Patoka and the adjoining terminals began to make sense. At one point they would have needed to store much of the oil and gas that was discovered in southern Illinois, ready for transporting or refining. Patoka gradually became a central hub for gas and oil pipelines as oil was discovered in other areas of the US. There needed to be somewhere in the middle of the country for many pipelines to meet, before heading south to the Gulf of Mexico for refining and exporting. With the Illinois basin providing the introductory infrastructure the industry needed, Patoka seemed to fit the bill, and so it has grown and grown ever since. I couldn’t help but worry though, as I cycled on to Effingham to catch my train. The oil industry is in full swing in North Dakota. People’s lives depend on the work it provides, and some people’s lives had been ruined by the oil pads and pipelines it builds, whilst everyone else seems to rely on whatever byproduct it produces.

The oil flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline isn’t going to last forever, that is a fact. Wells will dry up, just like Illinois. Maybe not today, or next week, but at some point they will no longer be economically viable. I couldn’t help but think of the towns I’d been through that were bustling with life; Williston, Watford City, Dickinson. The people there were proud of the industry that allowed them to live the American Dream. For many, these places provided a place to work and a place to call home. I couldn’t help but imagine those same houses, this time with boarded up windows, restaurants and shops closed down, and huge patches of land scarred where the pumpjacks once rocked. They would become much like the vast rural areas I cycled through in South Dakota and Iowa, whose dwindling population means many towns have begun to decay, where a thriving farming community would have once brought life.

For now our commitment to fossil fuels is still very much alive. We are addicted to the oil we, as a world, produce. It fuels our cars and planes, we use it to manufacture fabrics, clothes, plastics, pesticides. It is in our homes, our bathrooms, our kitchens, our supermarkets, schools and hospitals. As much as I tried not to use an ounce of petrol on my trip, I took for granted the fact that oil was used to lay the very roads I rolled along as well as in the production of the plastic straws that were involuntarily handed to me on planes and at drive-thru windows, where I stopped for water. It protected my camera gear, my food and clothes in my waterproof panniers during thunderstorms, and in my tent at night. I’d bought a wooden toothbrush, and my entire wash-kit was made up of organic and environmentally friendly products. But truthfully oil was, and is, everywhere. I could not escape it.

I wanted my journey to challenge my view of the oil industry, but with my own personal opinions leaning heavily towards keeping fossil fuels in the ground, this was going to be difficult. My individual attempt to reduce demand for oil and petroleum byproducts can be added to others’, who adhere to a similar lifestyle. But if this simple action works, when grouped together, it simply reduces the price of oil. This means large corporations need to sell more oil, and pushes them to invest more money in the exploration and discovery of oil, building on the drilling and pipeline infrastructure that is already in place.

Writer and activist George Monbiot clearly identified this supply and demand problem back in 2007. “Most of the governments of the rich world now exhort their citizens to use less carbon…they have a demand-side policy for tackling climate change. But as far as I can determine not one of them has a supply-side policy. So the demand-side policy will fail. Every barrel of oil that comes to the surface will be burnt.” I could not agree more. Without a limit on the amount of crude oil and fossil fuels individual countries are allowed to produce, they will continue to extract them, as the immediate financial rewards far outweigh their considerations for the environmental damage they’ll cause. This is a deeply saddening fact. I guess the one thing that nobody can take from us is hope. Hope that one day we put our faith in alternative, cleaner energy, so that the legacy we leave for future generations is not a web of underground, black, toxic veins, controlled by companies in the city, but instead a more harmonious and immediate respect for our land and soil.