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BAKKEN BREAKOUT • Spring 2011


carbon coal. The Missouri River Valley was well-wooded and they would have followed the Indians’ example since wood is much easier to ignite.


In North Dakota, 23 counties have strippable lignite reserves. The state’s lignite mining industry dates back to the 1870s. By the turn of the century, hundreds of mines were operating across the Williston Basin. Most were small-time operations called “wagon mines.” Farmers supplemented their


North Dakota’s lignite resource is much younger than its oil and natural gas hydrocarbons. The climate and landscape were considerably different as well. Lignite formed 50-70 million years ago when North Dakota was more temperate, and a vast swamp covered the Williston Basin. Leaf fossils point to forests dominated by magnolias, cypress, redwood, gingko, palm and other tree species now found mostly in the southern United States. Lignite beds of the Boullion Creek and


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income by mining local lignite resource and hauling it to town by wagon to be sold as heating fuel. Mines were roughly evenly divided between surface and underground enterprises.


Today, lignite is used almost exclusively as a power plant boiler fuel. On average, North Dakota mines produce about 30 million tons a year.


Unlike oil- and natural gas-bearing strata, lignite beds are highly visible throughout western North Dakota. Just drive through the Little Missouri badlands and you cannot help but notice the black lignite beds separated by layers of sandstone and mudstone. Being so exposed, it is not uncommon for lignite beds to be ignited by lightning or grass fires and burn for years. Over the centuries the fires have baked adjacent shale and sandstone beds to produce clinker – the red rock commonly, if not mistakenly, called scoria.


Sentinel Butte Formations commonly yield petrified logs and stumps. These two lignite-producing formations reach a maximum combined thickness of about 1,300 feet.


If the vegetation then was un-North Dakota-like, the creatures were just as exotic. Crocodiles and crocodile-like champsosaurs were the top of the food chain. They fed on numerous species of turtles, frogs, snakes, birds and small mammals. A champsosaur skeleton is currently on exhibit at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck.


In addition to producing energy stores and other natural resources, the Williston Basin is literally a spectator to life on earth. Its rock units have furnished us with countless materials that allow us to live in this sometimes hostile climate. Its fossils and unique geology allow us to more fully understand the processes that have shaped our piece of the earth. ■


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