Gawker, the edgy news site based in New York City, has discovered the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota.
The site’s America correspondent, Ken Layne, “is inaugurating his occasional series of reports from the field with a trip to the boom-rich oil fields of North Dakota's Bakken formation, from where he will be filing dispatches all week,” Gawker said by way of introducing the writer’s first piece about his adventures on Thursday October 3.
The Bakken is a touchy subject for American Indians, with many participating in the boom and others against it because of the potentially detrimental effects on the environment, as well as threats to public safety. There is also the question of whether the benefits will reach all tribes in the vicinity.
Layne describes a bleak landscape and less-than-favorable living conditions caused by a dearth of housing and infrastructure to support the steroidal burgeoning of a small Plains town.
“What would a commercial mining colony on Mars look like?” he writes in his opening column, Boomtown Rats on the Lonesome Prairie. “The workers, desperate men who went to the frontier because that's where the jobs were, would survive the hostile environment by living in temperature-controlled pods, only going outside when absolutely necessary. Services and amusements would be few, getting back home would be hard, and culture for these thousands of new arrivals wouldn't exist. That's how things are today in the Bakken oil boomtowns of North Dakota.”
Layne focuses mainly on the lack of housing that has put thousands of people into trailer parks with no sewer hookup, among other less-than-desirable conditions. He notes the jump in population from the 2010 census, which counted 14,716 people in 6,190 households in tiny Williston, North Dakota, and contrasts that with the 30,000 to 40,000 that the town now holds. “Not even a major city could absorb double or triple its population without trouble,” he writes.
Another signature characteristic of the boom is the “traffic nightmare” wrought by a plethora of tanker trucks that, in the absence of pipelines, bring fracking water in or carry oil out.
“The two-lane blacktops in and out of Williston are being hastily expanded into four-lane divided highways,” Layne writes. “The construction only adds to the miles-long traffic jams.”
The answer to the deplorable housing is “man camps,” which are “sprawling complexes” consisting of dining and game rooms, plus “lots of tiny single-occupancy cells with a bed, TV and sink,” he writes. “Toilets and showers are communal. Alcohol, pets, girlfriends and children are strictly forbidden.”
Installment 2 deals with shopping, and the complete and utter lack of beauty to be found in the newly settled parts of town.
“The oil industry creates horror and wreckage, not livable towns for people who aspire to some dignity and joy,” Layne writes unequivocally in American Ugly: Bakken Shantytowns and Stucco Strip Malls. The transient workers pay limited local taxes, he notes, because they maintain their main residences elsewhere.
Layne meets the great American buffalo in Bakken Boom: Where the Buffalo Are Furloughed, in which he sneaks past a nonexistent barrier to the shutdown-shuttered Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There he encounters “2,000 pounds of shaggy grandeur” placidly eating grass, blissfully unaware that the U.S. government has stopped functioning. The transcendent beauty of North Dakota’s northwestern corner and its wildlife move the correspondent.
“It is the opposite of the greedy Bakken hustle, and it is right on top of this very same geologic jackpot,” Layne notes. That jackpot is destined to tap out, Layne writes in his fourth dispatch, "Oilfield Trash" and a Boom That Won't Last.
“The oil won't last, and the jobs won't last, and the jobs that exist there today aren't enough to make a dent in the nation's unemployment rates,” he writes. “For this paltry reward that goes mostly to the oil companies, America has shrugged off a coming global apocalypse fed by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.”
The initial talk a few years ago of wind farms atop the wheat fields has been replaced by “industrial blight" and "poisoned water," among other ills.