Minnesota author reflects on environmentalism and oil lineage in North Dakota
Every now and then, those who support a cause find they are more rooted in its opposite than what they originally believed.
Such is true for Lisa Westberg Peters, a Minneapolis-based writer who has family ties to the Williston region and its oil.
Peters, 63, is the author of “Fractured Land,” a book published last year about her family’s experiences with oil in North Dakota. A self-described environmentalist, Peters explores in her book the insights and inner challenges of being a future inheritor of mineral rights in the state.
Although her mother currently holds all of her family’s mineral rights, and Peters herself did not own any at the time of writing, she said her uncle’s recent passing has revealed that a small amount of his share was left to her in his will.
“Technically, I’m a mineral rights owner now,” she said.
Peters said the idea for writing “Fractured Land” was sparked when her father, Walter Westberg, passed away in 2011.
Westberg was originally from North Dakota, near Williston, where he continued to own land that was laden with mineral rights even while he raised his family in Minnesota. These were then transferred Peters’s mother after he passed away.
“He was the keeper of all North Dakota oil knowledge in the family,” Peters said, adding that that knowledge died along with him.
She said her grandfather, Oscar Westberg, was also involved with the oil business, which was later passed down to Walter.
Peters has a history in journalism and writing children’s books, the latter of which have an emphasis on the natural world.
She also has a passion for geology. One of her hobbies is to collect different kinds of sand, describing it as beautiful and having “so much geological history represented in it.”
It was her geological interest, she said, that was partly responsible for her curiosity of North Dakota oil and the business that surrounds it following her father's death.
Combined with environmental concerns about hydraulic fracturing and petroleum consumption in general, Peters said she felt this was a “good start” as a writer to exploring the her family’s ties to oil.
Peters said that, through her research on petroleum geology, she’s come to gain a respect for petroleum technology, namely hydraulic fracturing. She said she doesn’t deny her fascination toward the process used to extract crude oil.
“I also have a lot of respect for the engineering prowess that goes into that,” she said, adding that her father would have been in awe of the technological advances that have come along
For her research, Peters went to North Dakota for two extended stays, as well as travels to Iowa, Wisconsin and western Minnesota.
She said it felt like “eight years of work condensed into two-and-a-half years.”
“It was a very intense project,” she said with a laugh.
But, Peters said, she’s found that many people are very interested in the environmental issues surrounding fossil fuels, which naturally hasn’t diminished despite the leveling off of the Bakken oil boom.
One of the stories that appear in the book concerns her memories of growing up with a cabin her father built on the St. Croix River in Minnesota. She said it was amidst that natural setting that she became environmentally conscious.
However, she said it was through her research for the book that she discovered her father had sold 40 acres of mineral rights in North Dakota in order to purchase that land.
“I find it the height of irony that that’s the place where I became an environmentalist,” Peters said.
She said this was just one of many contradictions that she came across.
“Those kind of ironies pop up all the time in my story,” she said.
Peters describes herself as an “honest” environmentalist that acknowledges the indebtedness she has to fossil fuels in general. Like most people, she said she has enjoyed the convenience it has provided in products like gasoline and plastic and polyester goods.
In giving talks on the book, Peters said she has encountered individuals who praise her for her honesty on the subject.
Still, she believes it is time for the nation to wean its dependence from fossil fuels given climate change and pollution problems associated with the resource.
Peters said she hopes North Dakota will accept the new federal regulations calling for the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions and eventually move toward renewable resources.
“I wish they would plunge ahead with renewables and diversify their economy,” she said, adding that doing so would help protect the state from oil booms and busts.
In her travels, Peters said she took to opportunity to collect a sample of frac sand, some of which she always carries around. She spoke of its rounded grains and clear, quartzite property.
“It actually is a beautiful sand,” she said.