Money, death, and danger in North Dakota’s fracking capital
At 9 p.m. on that August night, when I arrived for my first shift as a cocktail waitress at Whispers, one of the two strip clubs in downtown Williston, I didn’t expect a 25-year-old man to get beaten to death outside the joint. Then again, I didn’t really expect most of the things I encountered reporting on the oil boom in western North Dakota this past summer.
“Can you cover the floor?” the other waitress yelled around 11 p.m. as she and her crop-top sweater sidled behind the bar to take over for the bouncers and bartenders. They had rushed outside to deal with a commotion. I resolved to shuttle Miller Lites and Fireball shots with extra vigor. I didn’t know who was fighting, but assumed it involved my least favorite customers of the night: two young brothers who had been jumping up and down in front of the stage, their hands cupping their crotches the way white boys, whose role models are Eminem, often do when they drink too much. One sported a buzz cut, the other had hair like soft lamb’s wool.
The rest of the night was a blur of beer bottles and customer commands to smile more. It was only later, after the clientele was herded out to Red Peters’ catchy “The Closing Song” — “get the fuck out of here, finish up that beer” — and the dancers had emerged from the dressing room in sweatshirts, that I realized everyone was on edge.
“What’s wrong?” I asked the scraggly bearded bouncer walking me to my dusty sedan, whose backseat would soon double as my motel room.
“The kid’s going to die,” he replied. Turned out one of the brothers had gotten his head bashed in by a man wielding a metal pipe. He’d been airlifted to the nearby city of Minot where he would pass away a few days later.
I hadn’t driven nearly 2,000 miles from Brooklyn to work as a cocktail waitress in a strip club. (That only happened after I ran out of money.) I had set off with the intention of reporting on the domestic oil boom that was reshaping North Dakota’s prairie towns as well as the balance of both global power and the earth’s atmosphere.
This spring, production in North Dakota surged past one million barrels of oil a day. The source of this liquid gold, as it is locally known, is the Bakken Shale: a layered, energy-rich rock formation that stretches across western North Dakota, the corner of Montana, and into Canada. It had been considered inaccessible until breakthroughs in drilling and hydraulic fracturing made the extraction of oil from it economically feasible. In 2008, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) announced that the Bakken Shale contained 25 times more recoverable oil than previously thought, sparking the biggest oil rush in state history.
Now, six years later, the region displays all the classic contemporary markers of hell: toxic flames that burn around the clock; ink-black smoke billowing from 18-wheelers; intermittent explosions caused by lightning striking the super-conductive wastewater tanks that hydraulic fracturing makes a necessity; a massive Walmart; an abundance of meth, crack, and liquor; freezing winters; rents higher than Manhattan; and far, far too many men. To oil companies, however, the field is hallowed ground, one of the few in history to break the million-barrel-a-day benchmark, earning it “a place in the small pantheon of truly elite oil fields,” as one Reuters market analyst wrote.
This summer, driven partially by North Dakota’s boom, the United States surpassed Saudi Arabia in total oil and gas production, making the nation not only the number one consumer of fossil fuels but also the number one producer. (China is currently leading when it comes to annual carbon emissions, although this country still has higher emissions per capita.) Around the same time, the Pentagon issued a warning that climate change, caused by unchecked fossil-fuel extraction, “will aggravate stressors abroad such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability, and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence.” A subsequent report issued by the CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board, a government-funded military research organization, went even further, stating that the effects of climate change — food insecurity and massive forced displacement, just to name two — “will serve as catalysts for instability and conflict.”
And so, when I arrived in Williston this summer, easing my sedan past the fiery flare offs and the welcome sign exclaiming “Boomtown U.S.A.!,” my plan was to report on some of the less discussed aspects of the domestic energy revival, such as farmland pollution and the oil industry’s increasing militarization. But I had also come to Williston just to be, to explore the existential question of what it’s like to live amid a frenzy of activities that, as scientists have assured us, are likely to threaten the very existence humanity has known for the last few thousand years.
On my first night in town, I landed in the unfinished, wood-walled cabin of a local bartender and his friend, a flat-faced, 230-pound hulk of a man who worked on an oil rig and reminded me of Fred Flintstone. As we prepared pork chops stewed in Campbell’s mushroom soup and sipped cherry-flavored Southern Comfort, the two traded stories about Williston — the kind, they said, that don’t make the newspapers.
There was the time a man threatened to kill the bartender, and when the cops arrived, they let him go, arguing, “Well, he’s driving a company truck … .” Plenty of companies here issue their employees trucks, although by far the most common branded vehicles in Williston are white Ford Super Duty pick-ups with “Halliburton” stenciled on the front passenger door.
They recycled rumors about secret fights in rooms with padded walls and padded doors, where a winner can walk away with $50,000 to $60,000 in cash, and home poker games with buy-ins of more than $1,000. I quickly began learning the challenge of reporting from the oilfields: Rumors are rampant — there is not, for example, a cache of weapons and explosives stashed in a bunker behind Scenic Sports and Liquor, despite claims that it’s so — yet the most insane-sounding things have actually happened.
To mention just three that turned out to be all too true: During the winter, a long-time resident rented out an ice house for $5 a night to newly arrived workers struggling to find lodging; members of the Black Hawk private security company (no relation to the mercenary firm formerly known as Blackwater, although the founder enjoys the “intimidation factor” caused by the confusion) once set its men, armed with M-4 assault rifles, to guard 30,000 pounds of fracking-related explosives in the middle of the badlands; oil companies here have burned billions of dollars worth of natural gas straight into the atmosphere because it was less hassle than building pipelines to transport it.
Whether or not any of the stories those two men told that night were accurate, I was struck by their generosity and the kindness of others. That first day alone, I’d been lent a shirt by a woman working at the front desk of the Aspen Lodge & Suites, offered ideas for stories, and fed a home-cooked meal. Perhaps the deep social ties and steadfast humility of pre-boom North Dakota continued to permeate oilfield culture, as one lifelong resident optimistically suggested. Then again, sometimes generosity can shade over into other things entirely. That bartender, for example, would later try to lure me into the underground sex industry by promising no-participation-required journalistic access. I only had to pass one test, which involved being on my knees.
I wish you could have followed through so i could of helped your story … he texted me after I walked out.
The next time I saw Fred Flintstone, he was tired of his haphazard schedule with Key Energy, an oilfield service company, so we spent the afternoon cruising in his Ford Mercury, visiting the offices of its competitors as he looked for a new job. He wore baby blue surfboard shorts and his lower lip was embroidered with a line of black stitches from a recent bar brawl. He was a lover, not a fighter, he assured me, although he also mentioned that the other guy had a broken jaw and a few staples in his head.
According to residents and oilfield workers, including Fred, there are only two things to do in Williston: work and drink. The reasons are simple enough. Unlike in significant parts of the country, well-paying jobs are easy to acquire in the oil fields. As a result, North Dakota boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, an eye-popping 2.8 percent. To access these jobs, however, the majority of workers had to leave their families and relocate to this remote region, where you often end up living in company-provided housing in steel shipping containers and the number of men vastly, sometimes dangerously, exceeds that of women. Many of these men, in turn, experience feelings of loneliness and alienation, which is where the drinking comes in.
Fred was so confident he’d have a new employer by the end of the week that he suspended the day’s job-hunting when the remotest possibility of picking up a woman arose. (“I know this is crazy,” he asked the secretary at Nabors, a drilling contractor, “but are you all married up? No? Well, when do you get off?”) Soon enough, we parked at R. Rooster BBQ Co. to down some pulled pork, then stopped to check out a ’98 Honda Accord. He swore that he’s bought and sold 68 cars over the years. To end our day, for reasons that passed me by, we stopped and checked out a butcher’s shop.
To my surprise, as we drove, he explained that he wasn’t a big fan of the whole oil extraction thing; he’d spent much time watching the National Geographic Channel and was concerned about the deforestation of the rainforest and the warming of the atmosphere. “When they say polar bears could be extinct in the next few years, you’re obviously doing something very, very wrong.”
He wasn’t the first oilfield worker I’d met who wondered just what he was involved in and exhibited concern about climate change. Many proved surprisingly aware of the way that flaring off the natural gas that surges out of the drilled wells contributes to global warming or how spilled wastewater from the hydro-fracking process can sterilize land. I’d even met one former river guide turned oilfield worker who texted me an entire Terry Tempest Williams poem upon my departure.
Despite such genuine concerns, most agreed with Fred’s assessment: “I, one man alone … I can’t do a fucking thing about it. So I’ll just get rich and I’ll move away, find my acreage back in Iowa or Nebraska or Kansas or whatever, and live my life accordingly.”
When I ran into him again about a week later at Williston’s recently opened $70 million recreation center, sure enough, he had a new gig.
Of course, there are a slew of sites in the United States where residents are mounting serious resistance to fossil fuel extraction. To name just three: in P.R. Springs, Utah, land defenders are attempting to stop the construction of the nation’s first commercial tar sands mine; on a reservation on the Black Mesa plateau in Arizona, the Diné (often called Navajo, the name imposed by Spanish conquistadors) are fighting to permanently shut down a coal mine; in Nebraska, indigenous leaders and local ranchers have joined forces to try to block the final leg of the Keystone XL pipeline slated to bring carbon-dirty tar sands from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast. But Williston is not one of those places.
It’s hard to know whether Williston, for all its technological prowess in extracting fossil fuels from the earth, is a window into the nation’s future — or a last gasp from its past. Certainly, the sharply divergent opinions of what to make of the oil boom catch something of the country’s increasing polarization over what the coming years ought to hold. On one side, supporters of the boom see a domestic energy revival as exactly what America needs: more places where anyone who wants a job can work, where technological superiority carries the day, and where riches (never mind whose) are there for the taking — especially if you are a man, or white, or both. On the other side, opponents of the oil frenzy consider it the latest methane-gas-flaring incarnation of the worst American traditions: unbridled greed, resource plunder, and violent machismo. The latter is becoming an increasing problem as non-native oilfield workers flock to the local reservations of the Three Affiliated Tribes, where they are immune from prosecution by tribal governments. As one told the Atlantic, “You can do anything short of killing somebody.”
In Williston, a single term catches both views: Workers here overwhelming call this place “the Wild West.”
Just beneath the sense of giddiness and possibility in this frontier outpost of America’s new energy empire lurks loneliness of an almost indescribable sort. Since the boom began, at least 15,000 workers — mostly men — have descended on Williston alone. When you meet them, it’s clear that most carry the residue of half-lives from someplace else: photographs of their children, memories of ex-wives, accents bred in Minnesota or Liberia. “You can almost see the lost-ness, the desperation in their faces,” Marc Laurent told me. He’s the manager of the Aspen Lodge & Suites where I first stayed, before the cost of housing got the best of me and, like almost all newcomers to Williston at one point or another, I resigned myself to living in my car.
Buck was one of Laurent’s guests and exactly the type of man he was describing. A house framer, I first met him wandering around the Aspen’s dirt courtyard looking hangover-haggard. He had once had a wife — “back home” — but it didn’t work out.
Within minutes of meeting, he invited me out to lunch — and then to be his roommate. Just to save money, he clarified. (I declined the offer.) We spoke on the unfurnished wooden walkway that connected a series of row-house motel rooms that had arrived pre-assembled on a tractor-trailer less than six months before. He explained that he’d been here about eight months, mostly framing the single-family houses that companies were putting up as fast as possible.
A jowly man of sagging posture, Buck said, “I’m just trying to rebuild myself.” His words conjured up for me an image of him attempting to frame himself, measuring the length of his arms, the angle of his shoulders until, finally, he hammered himself back into shape. There was something desperate about the way he and others like him had come here. So many, after all, flocked to this town because they needed the work, because their local economies had collapsed in 2008 and had never really come back. They weren’t, however, looking to pour themselves a new foundation in Williston. Instead, as so many reassured me, after a few years, after the money was made, they would leave.
A sense of rootlessness gripped me as the weeks stretched on. Sometimes what I was learning left me feeling dizzy — like the commonplace estimates I heard that the Bakken boom could easily last another 20 years. Or that energy companies were now developing plans for deepwater fracking in the Gulf of Mexico. Or that the county of Tulare, Calif., had run out of tap water in that state’s never-ending mega-drought. But most of time I just felt numb. When one of the bouncers at the strip joint where I worked later told me that the dead boy’s head had cracked open “like a cantaloupe,” I found myself not caring all that much because he hadn’t left me a tip.
“I’ve been thinking maybe I’ll just stay in North Dakota for a while,” I told my best friend’s answering machine before walking into a waitressing shift about a month into my trip. I was making good money at Whispers. I had made at least a few friends who I knew were not pimps, and I’d gotten the hang of living out of my car. I spoke to my parents less and less frequently and my memories of the East Coast seemed to be fading. I had, it seemed, become part of oil country — and it was becoming part of me.
My friend, however, was not impressed. “No, don’t do that,” he said on the phone the next day. “You need to come home.”
So, about a week later, I stuffed my glove compartment with my Staples spiral notebooks and headed east, past orange flares licking the black night, past the tangled-metal refineries of Indiana and Ohio, past fracking-well pumps pecking at the fields of Pennsylvania, burning gasoline the whole way, the memory of Williston never quite receding.