By CHIP BROWN Published: January 31, 2013
Long before the full frenzy of the boom, you could see its harbingers at the Mountrail County courthouse in Stanley, N.D. Geologists had pored over core samples and log signatures and had made their educated guesses, and now it was the hour of the “landmen,” the men and women whose job was to dig through courthouse books for the often-tangled history of mineral title and surface rights.
Apart from a few fanatics who sometimes turned up at midnight, the landmen would begin arriving at the courthouse around 6 a.m. In the dead of winter, it would still be dark and often 20 or 30 below zero, and because the courthouse didn’t open until 7:30, the landmen would leave their briefcases outside the entrance, on the steps, in the order they arrived. And then they would go back to their cars and trucks to wait with the engines running, their faces wreathed in coffee steam. Sometimes there were more than 20 briefcases filed on the courthouse steps. The former landman who told me this — Brent Brannan, now director of the North Dakota Oil and Gas Research Program — said he sometimes thought he could see the whole boom in that one image, briefcases waiting for the day to start, and it killed him a little that he never took a picture.
For many years North Dakota has been a frontier — not the classic 19th-century kind based on American avarice and the lure of opportunity in unsettled lands, but the kind that comes afterward, when a place has been stripped bare or just forgotten because it was a hard garden that no one wanted too much to begin with, and now it has reverted to the wilderness that widens around dying towns. In a way, of course, this kind of frontier is as much a state of mind as an actual place, a melancholy mood you can’t shake as you drive all day in a raw spring rain with nothing but fence posts and featureless cattle range for company thinking, Is this all there is? until finally you get out at some windswept intersection and gratefully fall on the fellowship of a dog-faced bar with a jukebox of songs about people on their way to somewhere else.
All of which may explain the shock of coming around a bend and suddenly finding a derrick illuminated at night, or a gas flare framed by stars, or dozens of neatly ranked trailers in a “man camp,” or a vast yard of drill pipe, or a herd of water trucks, or tracts of almost-finished single-family homes with Tyvek paper flapping in the wind of what just yesterday was a wheat field. North Dakota has had oil booms before but never one so big, never one that rivaled the land rush precipitated more than a century ago by the transcontinental railroads, never one that so radically changed the subtext of the Dakota frontier from the Bitter Past That Was to the Better Future That May Yet Be.
It’s hard to think of what oil hasn’t done to life in the small communities of western North Dakota, good and bad. It has minted millionaires, paid off mortgages, created businesses; it has raised rents, stressed roads, vexed planners and overwhelmed schools; it has polluted streams, spoiled fields and boosted crime. It has confounded kids running lemonade stands: 50 cents a cup but your customer has only hundreds in his payday wallet. Oil has financed multimillion-dollar recreation centers and new hospital wings. It has fitted highways with passing lanes and rumble strips. It has forced McDonald’s to offer bonuses and brought job seekers from all over the country — truck drivers, frack hands, pipe fitters, teachers, manicurists, strippers. It has ginned up an unreleased reality show called “Boomtown Girls,” which follows the lives of “five bold and brave sisters” in the formerly drowsy farm center of Williston, N.D. Williston, whose population has tripled in the past 10 years, lies in the middle of the 150,000-square-mile Williston Basin, a depression in the crust of the earth that geologists now believe contains one of the largest oil fields in the world.
In the fall of 2011 in Crosby, N.D., Continental Resources, the oil company with the most acreage leased in the basin, erected a self-congratulatory granite monument celebrating its work in the so-called Bakken Formation, the Williston Basin rocks that, as Continental put it, ushered in “a new era in the American oil industry.” The number of rigs drilling new wells in North Dakota’s part of the basin reached a record 218 last May. It has now leveled off at around 200, as thousands of wells have been completed under deadline pressure to secure expiring mineral leases. Many thousands more will be spudded in the next two years as the boom moves from discovery to production and crews drill “infill” wells, complete pipelines, fortify roads, enlarge refineries and build natural-gas pumping stations and oil-loading train yards.
North Dakota’s last oil boom, 30 years ago, collapsed so quickly when prices crashed that workers in the small city of Dickinson left the coffee in their cups when they quit their trailers. Apostles of “Bakken gold” insist that what’s different this time is that this time is different, the history of frontier avarice notwithstanding. This is the boom that is going to change everything without the remorse and misgivings that have marked the aftermath of so many past orgies of resource extraction. This is the boom that won’t leave the land trashed, won’t destroy communities, won’t afflict the state with the so-called Dutch Disease in which natural-resource development and the sugar rush of fast cash paradoxically make other parts of the economy less competitive and more difficult to sustain. This is the boom being managed by local people certain they know how to look after their interests and safeguard the land they live on. This is the Big One that North Dakota has been waiting for for more than a century. [… read more.]