22 Apr 2014

Fracking for oil in North Dakota’s boomtown

Not so long ago, Williston, North Dakota was the kind of town people left rather than arrived in. The local economy was shrinking and the wind blew all year round.  There weren’t enough jobs for the town’s sons and daughters.

But these days there are thousands of arrivals from all across the United States, drawn by the smell of money, and the promise of a better future. When we arrived, we met men recovering from housing foreclosure, job redundancies, and the blight of recession; as well as those looking to pay off university tuition fees, save for a house, or just generally to make their first million.

They come by bus, by train, by plane and by car, over the windswept prairies, to the North Dakota settlement that describes itself as “Boomtown”.


In the last five years Williston’s population has grown from 10,000 to 35,000.  The oil workers in the bars at night boast of wages well over $100,000, and complain of eye-wateringly high rental costs, which make it the most expensive place to rent a three bedroom apartment in all of America. Yes – more expensive than New York.

Running against the tide, Henry leaning against the back of his friend’s new pickup, told us he was going home. Tired of hard work, high wages, and nowhere to live “like a citizen” as he described it. To him, it made no sense.

His friend, Bill, disagreed. After two years in the oilfields, he’d bought a house, two pickups, become a dad, and was netting a wage of $150,000.

Dotted around the landscape every half mile or so, is the eerie sight of a pumping jack – part predator, part see-saw – leaning deep into the ground. With each tilt it rams 100,000 feet of pipe into the earth’s soft tissue, sucking oil from between the shale rock.

Read more: How North Dakota’s fracking frenzy is wasting natural gas

Drilling a well in 21 days

This is the oil that fracking found. Geologists long knew of the rich reserves in the Williston basin that stretches from North Dakota across to Montana and up to Canada. But it resisted the oil industry’s persistent attempts to reach it.

But then two things happened. Better drilling technology meant crews could sink one vertical shaft and then run the drill horizontally, parallel to the earth’s surface, like an ant’s nest. And from those long exploratory tunnels, they could frack – fracture rock with sand and water at high pressure – unlocking barrel-full after barrel-full of light crude oil.

Oilman Rory Nelson has seen booms come and go but says what sets this one apart is its speed.  In a few years, he says, North Dakota has come from producing 100,000 barrels a day, to 1m barrels a day. You can drill a well in 21 days, where it used to take three months.

Part of the fallout of that velocity is the notable gas-flaring problem on the North Dakota fields. Glowing torches of gas, burning against the night sky, light the horizon around Williston (see photo). The environmental organisation CERES in Boston estimates the fields are burning off the greenhouse gas equivalent of 1m cars.

There’s pressure on industry to put the gas into pipes, and use it, but drilling has well and truly outpaced any such infrastructure. While the state government is talking tough about the problem, its threats so far have drifted into nothingness, a bit like the natural gas itself.

One of the workers we spoke to admitted they don’t talk too much about climate change on the oilfields.  Another truck dispatcher described the attitude as; “let’s hope we don’t cause so much damage now, that we can’t fix it in the future”.

Read more: Spectre of Blair haunts Syria war

Crime boom

In the bars of Williston, it’s the wild west, but with shot glasses of potent pineapple flavoured liquor. Bikers rub shoulders with oil workers, who watch the girls from Boomtown Babes, a saucy coffee kiosk, get down to some live music delivered by a startled-looking country and western band, all the way from Tennessee. The Babes are on their way to the topless bar, because, as one of them explains, it’s the one place you can go in town and not get too much hassle from men.

Crime is up. Rape is three times the national average. At the end of last year, a man armed with a shotgun walked into a local church and robbed the congregation at gunpoint during Saturday evening mass.

There’s a big city-sized drug problem, mainly methamphetamines. Workers who can’t pass random drug tests quickly find themselves on the wrong side of the fracking miracle, without an income, with a habit to support, in one of the most expensive places to live in the US.

As for fracking itself, you’ll hear no public argument over the potential damage to the water table, or earthquakes, up in North Dakota. The mayor himself tells us they’ve had no problems, and look how many wells they’ve drilled!  The industry talks about cement casing around the wells, and the fact they’re drilling two miles below the water zone.

In truth there’s no appetite to wait and discover the long term impacts of high intensity fracking. For everyone invested in North Dakota’s Bakken shale miracle – from the drivers of the trains that carry the fracking sand, the truck drivers who cart the fracking water, the landsmen, the rough-hands, the oil drillers, the recruitment officers, the barracks builders, the construction teams, the townsfolk, even the Boomtown Babes – North Dakota’s time is now.

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