North Dakota oil development brings new wealth

By Chuck Haga
Parshal, North Dakota (AP) 11-07

Like an old woodsman gazing into a well-built campfire, Herb Geving stared into the steady, whooshing flame illuminating what once was pasture for his horses and playground for coyotes.

“Just look at it,” he said softly, lifting the broad brim of his cowboy hat to fully appreciate the intense red-orange flare licking high into the western Dakota night.

“They say the higher it flames, the more she’ll produce,” he said. “Just look at ‘er go!” A nearly full moon rose in the southeast and joined the stars vainly trying to compete with the natural gas flaring from Geving’s new oil well, one of three he has an interest in, one of many now lighting the rangeland from Parshall northwest toward Stanley, one of perhaps hundreds to come in this new and rapidly developing oil field.

“I love to come out here and watch it, to be a part of it,” Geving said, adjusting the hat again, surveying the broad land and sky and the singular flames – his and the others that stretch to the horizon like landing lights for an isolated and seemingly endless runway.

“A millionaire by next fall,” he said.

It’s about as much as he will say about the windfall that will come to him, a retired rancher and garbage hauler who held onto the mineral rights on much of his land: holding and waiting until prices rose and the oil people found new ways to extract the riches below, making development profitable.

A neighbor whose well came in earlier received a check for $570,000, his share after four months of production, Geving said. As many as 30 wells are producing or soon will be in this new play area, “and they’re talking about putting in between 500 and 700,” he said.

“Going to be a lot of millionaires.”

People in the region “are just starting to see the potential” in this new oil play, said Gary Petersen, president of Lakeside State Bank in New Town, 16 miles west of Parshall.

“Overall, people are optimistic about what’s happening,” he said. “I haven’t seen a big oil check come through my bank yet, and folks aren’t running down the street giddy. That’s not the nature of people here. But there sure has been a lot of leasing activity and lots of reports of successful wells.

“The hope is that the extra activity will help supplement incomes and allow people to improve their lifestyles a little,” he said.

Seismographers tested the area, including Geving’s land, in the early 1970s.

“There was three guys come in here with a helicopter, and there was a lot of seismographing,” he said. Nothing came of that search then, “but I told my family we were going to have oil. I knew it was there. Now I can say, ‘I told you so.”’

Tim and Felicia Jarski, who work at the Reservation Telephone Cooperative in Parshall, said people who hold no mineral rights in the strike area may envy those who hit it rich, but they don’t resent them.

“It’ll change life for a few people,” said Tim Jarski, 48. “There are some landowners who don’t have mineral rights, and they’re worried their land will take a beating and they won’t get much compensation. I think most of the rest of us think it’s a good thing because it will create jobs and increase tax revenue.”

Parshall is a town of 1,027 (2005 estimate) that sits just inside the boundaries of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. About 55 percent of the population is American Indian. The 2000 census found the median household income at $24,500, with a little more than a fourth of the population living below the poverty line.

The city stands to make big money on the millions of gallons of water it’s selling to the well drillers, and the furious oil activity is bound to ripple through the local economy in other ways. A cafe is expected to reopen soon, and maybe someone will respond to the note posted in a window of the Parshall Public Library: “Wanted: Someone to take my place as librarian ... as soon as possible.”

Hours are 2 p.m., to 5 p.m., Tuesday and Saturday, if there’s a librarian.

Herb Geving lives alone in an epic 11,000-square-foot house that he and a brother started building 30 years ago on the family home place just northwest of Parshall.

The brother died years ago, and Geving pushed on as money would allow, finishing a bathroom here, a rock wall or lavishly carved headboard there.

“I’m very patient,” he said. “But it will be finished now by spring.”

Gold fixtures adorn a rock grotto shower, and the master bedroom features a round, red velvet bed and – to come – a sunken bath. Spiral staircases lead to the unfinished third floor, where Geving – a 74-year-old divorced father of five – plans a wraparound bed facing southern sunsets and, on the north, a bunkhouse and playroom for grandchildren.

“This will be another washer-dryer room,” he said, opening a side door.

His father died when Herb was 16, the worst day he can remember. The family continued to ranch and farm, acquiring more land and branching into other pursuits, including horses, garbage and politics; Geving was elected to one term in the state Senate in the 1960s and made an angry, quixotic run for governor in 1976, winning about a fifth of the vote in the Republican primary.

He ran angry because he was almost broken three years earlier by a foreclosure brought by the Production Credit Association in Minot. He lost 800 cattle and several thousand acres.

The garbage-hauling and landfill business Geving started 50 years ago was shut down “almost the day they said they wanted to put an oil well there.”

Otherwise, “the oil money will change my life very little,” he said.

“I’ll see the family is taken care of. There will be gifts for the kids. I want to build a house for my foreman.

“People ask if I’m going to travel around the world. I say no, I’ve done that and I didn’t like it. But I did tell my family we fly first class from now on.”