Notes from the Boom
The back roads in Nebraska and the Dakotas are lonely places. Surreal hills and endless prairie. I’m the only car on the road. When the occasional semi or pick-up truck passes by, the driver usually gives a little nod or wave, two strangers making contact at 80 miles per hour before returning to the solitude of the Great Plains. There’s plenty of room out here to drift and think. This changed when I crossed I-94 into the northwest corner of North Dakota. Trucks everywhere. I’ve never seen so many trucks in my life, thundering rigs hauling complicated machines that I could not decipher. Crawling through miles of bone-rattling traffic, there’s a fundamental disconnect. The blank landscape says these roads should be empty.
This corner of North Dakota is changing. I heard it on the radio. Commercials for crushing and drilling supplies. Job listings for an exciting career in the energy industry. Public service announcements telling me that being tired on the job can kill people. “Recognize when you’ve had enough and turn the operation over to someone else.” Auger bits and thermal wear. Fire-retardant clothing. Weekend barrel racing. A caller on a local talk show says “stripper buses” with poles in the aisle shuttle oil workers from the “man camps” to bars and escort services. Cut to commercial: “With money flowing like oil in North Dakota, now’s the time to invest in gold!”
Money is flowing in North Dakota. So is traffic. A few remote farming towns sit on what is known as the Bakken oil field. It was discovered in 1951 but nobody knew how to get at the oil, which is sandwiched between shale rock across 200,000 square miles. Today we know how to get it. Hydraulic fracturing, a controversial horizontal drilling process. Anywhere between 14 to 24 billion barrels of oil are waiting beneath all that empty land. This is enough oil to fuel America for three or four years. Some recent estimates go as high at 500 billion barrels, which is probably a fantasy. Last year, daily oil production began to outstrip the ability to ship it out of the Bakken.
Honk if you love Obama so I can flip you off. I love the smell of diesel fuel in the morning. Pumping hard and drilling deep. Walking through the Walmart parking lot, I dig the bumper stickers on the backs of muddy trucks. Some oil workers were camping in the parking lot until Walmart told them to go away. On the radio, I heard that Walmart was simply leaving groceries on forklifts because people were buying everything before they could put it on the shelves. This I wanted to see. But there were no palettes or forklifts. Turns out you can’t trust everything you hear on AM radio. Bottled water, potato chips, and energy drinks were running low, otherwise the only thing out of the ordinary was a very long line of men waiting at Customer Service to send money home.
Everybody’s talking about the boom. In the town of Williston, the population jumped from 12,000 to 20,000 in four years. Another five thousand are expected this year. Same story in the surrounding towns of New Town, Watford City, and Alexander (where the Ten Commandments are posted at either end of its small Main Street). There’s talk of eminent domain, spiking rents, new highways across residents’ farms and fields, moving the high school, and building a new airport. Everybody’s affected by oil. I try to think of parallels, of an external force that’s rocked an entire community, pulling it together while tearing it into new factions. The only thing I can come up with is the failure of the levees after Hurricane Katrina.
After driving nearly 90,000 miles through America, I’ve seen hundreds of small towns struggling to retain and attract residents. The oil boom towns suddenly find themselves with too many people, and many workers live in company-owned “man camps” where they wait for better housing to become available. The roads are chewed up from the truck traffic and the area’s utilities and services are being pushed beyond their limits. These are the side effects of a population boom.
I drove to North Dakota to meet with Todd Melby, a journalist for public radio. He’s spending the year in Williston covering the boom, thanks to Localore. The series is called Black Gold Boom. (At Civic Center, we’re creating a visual identity for the project, putting Todd’s audio portraits online with the aid of Zeega, and developing a series of public engagement materials to begin a conversation about the impact of the boom.)
Housing is in short supply and motels are booked months in advance. Many residents are renting their homes. Todd’s staying with a remarkable woman named Chris, a writer and painter and phenomenally generous cook. She seems excited about the new people in town, hoping it will add some diversity and new ideas to the community. Others aren’t so sure how this will play out. “We’re used to white Christian farmers whose families came from Scandinavia,” said one woman. “We’re a quiet farming community and there are a lot of people who’d like to keep it that way.” Chris recently began painting her memories of how the land used to be, hoping to capture it “before it’s all covered in oil rigs.”
I ate a cheeseburger in a makeshift burger joint with a dirty carpet laid over the dirt and plastic walls to keep the wind out. Sitting at a picnic table with workers from the patch, we watched FOX News on a giant plasma screen hanging from the wall. “My daughter wants to visit,” said a trucker from California. “But this place is a shithole vortex.” He was a medical student before he had kids and began working at Microsoft. Now he’s got a son who was nearly killed in Afghanistan and another who wants to go. “Guns, guns, guns! Every kid just wants to shoot a damned gun. America is the world’s pitbull. You need somebody bullied? We’ll do it.” He talks about the stress of having a child in the military. “Now I just tell my kids if you want to go to war, let me shoot you myself so at least I’ll know where your body is.” Like everyone else with out-of-state plates, he’s in North Dakota because the money’s good. Some workers in the patch make over $250,000. On several local radio shows I heard people say that if you can get to North Dakota and pass a drug test, you’ll probably make at least $100,000.
A big man from Idaho named Bobcat John sells knives from his truck on the side of the road. A motorcycle with a blue-pink glitter pinwheel taped to the handlebars is parked nearby. Todd interviewed Bobcat John. “I’ve never seen so many trucks in one place in my life,” he said. “It gets so dusty, you can hardly see my knives.” Listen to the audio profile here.
I pointed the car south. 1870 miles to New Orleans. I sped past rigs, doghouses, and pump jacks on the horizon. I thought of Chris, of her optimism about her changing community twinned with her determination to capture a landscape and perhaps a way of life that’s fading quickly. A loud crack interrupted my thoughts. A rock from a passing truck shattered the corner of my windshield. Driving through Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, I watched the crack spread down and slowly drill horizontally across the entire windshield.
There are so many stories radiating from the oil. Housing, loneliness, food, traffic, violence, city planning, sex work, clothing, environmental concerns. Todd Melby is covering these stories all year at Black Gold Boom.