Rapid Response Grant Yields Oil Patch Stories, Book Chapter

May 15, 2024
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FEJ StoryLog: Rapid Response Grant Yields Oil Patch Stories, Book Chapter

In mid-2020, Portland-based freelance journalist Erika Bolstad hit the road in a rented camper van to report on the abrupt crash of oil production during the pandemic in North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. Funded in part by a Fund for Environmental Journalism grant, the project produced two stories. One reported on the crash’s impacts on communities dependent on oil revenue. Another examined the state’s use of federal COVID-19 stimulus money to cap more than 200 abandoned oil wells and the impacts on oil industry jobs and the environment. The project also provided an opportunity to continue researching for her book, “Windfall: The Prairie Woman Who Lost Her Way and the Great-Granddaughter Who Found Her,” published in 2023.

By Erika Bolstad

Back in 2020, oil prices collapsed due to the falling global demand for oil during the COVID-19 pandemic. Pumpjacks in oil patch states like North Dakota ground to a halt.

I watched with keen interest from my home in Portland, Oregon, curious how this downturn would play out in communities dependent on oil revenue.

I had been traveling throughout North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch since 2013, researching a book. I knew the impacts of plummeting oil revenue on these communities needed to be part of the book. Plus, this oil bust also warranted a stand-alone story.

A new angle to the story unfolded after North Dakota announced plans to use millions in federal funding available through the newly passed Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) to plug 239 abandoned oil wells.


Could that portend the

post-pandemic future?

One where oil wells got

plugged instead of drilled?


Could that portend the post-pandemic future? One where oil wells got plugged instead of drilled? It seemed like a perfect opportunity to be on the ground asking questions.

Around the same time, the Society of Environmental Journalists announced a new round of Fund for Environmental Journalism story grants. These “rapid response” grants aimed to fill the gap in environmental reporting due to media organization cutbacks during and after the pandemic. I applied and received one of the $2,000 stipends.


Two stories approved

Since I'm a freelancer, I like to have a couple of stories lined up whenever I travel. I pitched a piece about plugging abandoned wells to my editors at Stateline, which covers state policy news. They loved the idea, and so I began making plans for a June reporting trip to North Dakota.

The author, outside her rented camper van, taking a break from driving to snap a shot of the growing number of wind farms in North Dakota.

My former editors at my old employer, E&E News, liked an idea for a piece about life in Watford City. It was a town the publication had visited often over the years, to check in on life at the heart of an oil boom. My proposed story was aimed at capturing a moment at the bottom of one of Watford City's many boom-and-bust cycles.

Each story paid about $3,000, and with the $2,000 FEJ grant, it was solid income from the travel, minus my expenses. The trip was more expensive than usual because I rented a camper van for safety — things were so uncertain in 2020, and North Dakota was a COVID-19 hot spot at the time.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the state of North Dakota wasn't going to finalize contracts for the well-plugging operations until August. So while I was able to complete reporting in June for one story, “Hope Outlasts Prosperity in Town Flattened by Oil Bust,” which E&E News published in July 2020, I had to return to North Dakota in August for more reporting on Stateline’s story.

Because the weather was still good, I saved money on the second reporting trip by driving my own car and camping in my tent.


State officials say ‘no independent journalists’

One snag? North Dakota's Department of Mineral Resources did not want me to report independently on this project.

Although I had made it clear I would drop everything to come to North Dakota for a state-sponsored tour planned to showcase reclamation work, state regulators deliberately did not invite me. Instead, they allowed a reporter from a local paper and some television stations on the tour.


I began cold-calling dozens of

companies, in hopes of finding

a contractor who would allow me

to tag along with his crews.


After I badgered state regulators for information about contractors, they gave me a 5,000-plus page document of contractors and told me to reach out to them. I began cold-calling dozens of companies, in hopes of finding a contractor who would allow me to tag along with his crews.

Just one of those contractors called me back: Tom Brooks of Tiger Well Service. When Brooks called me on a Monday and told me his crews would be plugging a well on a Wednesday, I packed my tent and car and dropped everything to drive from Oregon to North Dakota as quickly as possible.

Two hours from the North Dakota state line, Brooks called saying state officials were grumbling about me being on site. But since I had already driven 16 hours, he would allow me to join them anyway.

Brooks' participation was crucial for the narrative of the Stateline piece about plugging oil wells. I needed to have someone like him in the piece. It was something I promised in my grant application, that I would use the grant to tell stories about people affected by the pandemic.

Once I got over the hurdle of finding an operator, the story was a straightforward policy story. I'm pleased with how I was able to use a relatable main character, but also able to present the problem clearly and succinctly with research and my on-the-ground reporting. The story also provided useful examples of solutions to a pernicious environmental problem.

Stateline’s “In Slumping Energy States, Plugging Abandoned Wells Could Provide an Economic Boost” ran in September 2020.

I also used both trips to continue researching my book, which went out on submission to publishers in 2020. I sold it to Sourcebooks in late 2020. Details from the story about Watford City and the days I spent with the Tiger Well Service crews ended up being critical to the second-to-last chapter of “Windfall.”

I'm so grateful the FEJ grant got me to and from North Dakota safely during the pandemic.

Erika Bolstad is an independent journalist in Portland, Oregon, and the author of “Windfall: The Prairie Woman Who Lost Her Way and the Great-Granddaughter Who Found Her.” The book was a 2024 finalist for an Oregon Book Award. Her work has been supported by the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and an environmental arts grant from the Anonymous Was a Woman Foundation.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 20. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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