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The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown - Blaire Briody

Briody's book documents the rise (and fall) of America's latest "gold rush", fracking. The newfound ability to unlock formerly unattainable (financially and technically) oil reserves. She does this through telling the story of the Bakken oil field in North Dakota. The perfect place to explore this new technology, a relatively poor, unpopulated, and somewhat isolated area of the country. A place that really needed the financial gains that would be provided by the business. A place that wouldn't be readily under the eye of environmentalists or conservationists. A place where it seems a little money spread around would appease any government officials who grew concerned about the effects on the environment.
Briody explains the reasons why the newest "gold rush" was welcome. They are eerily similar to former get rich quick schemes in our past. Following the economic problems created by the housing collapse, there were a lot of "blue collar" workers who found themselves out of work, unable to find new jobs, or to afford the homes they were living in. As she points out, "manufacturing lost 6 million jobs between 2000 and 2009, and the construction industry shed another 2 million during the recession...the oil and gas industry, particularly in western North Dakota, emerged as a shining mecca". A large migration of these people began to the North Dakota oil field.
In her book, the author concentrates on the Williston, ND, area. Part of my territory in my career had been spent covering North Dakota. The Williston area, while having wonderful people living there, was not a booming metropolis. It was ill prepared for a large influx of people, most of whom were young men. It did not have housing, shopping, roads, hospitals, sanitation facilities, etc, etc, for an overnight influx of people. Yet, suddenly, there they were. Men were forced to live in camping trailers, tents, or worse. Suddenly confronted with a group of young men with no outlets for "recreation", Williston found itself inundated with strip joints, bars, drug use, and prostitution. Locals found themselves forced out of their housing because of astronomically rising rents. The author discovered that statewide, homicides were at the highest level in 20 years. Rapes were at the highest level in 10 years. Drug related arrests were up 64 percent since 2002. And alcohol was a factor in more than half of the deadly traffic accidents in the state in 2012.
Yet, the social impacts were not the worst of the problems Williston found itself facing. Environmentally, fracking was destroying the area. Oil and chemical spills abounded. Water quality went downhill. And no one was acting to protect the environment. As the author pointed out, "Back in 2005, when fracking for natural gas was growing rapidly, the Bush-Cheney administration passed a bill that exempted fracking operations from the Safe Drinking Water Act". Contracts were structured so that if any accidents happened on site, the big oil companies were insulated so that small companies were stuck with any fines or legal proceedings. State agencies, responsible for enforcing rules regarding spills and other violations, dropped the ball. In a three year period, the state issued fewer than 50 fines for all drilling violations, including thousands of spills. And the Federal Government was hamstrung. The EPA could only investigate spills on federal lands, it had to refer incidents on private property to the (nonexistant) state regulators.
As with all get-rich-quick schemes, eventually the boom crashed. Oil prices plummeted. By 2016, the price per barrel of oil was under $35, down from the peak of $145 eight years earlier. Some 10,000 jobs were cut over 2015 in North Dakota. For the most part, thousands of blue-collar workers were back where they started, struggling to survive.
The author pointed out an interesting side-note. "The worry and uncertainty oil workers felt during this time coincided with the rise of Donald Trump's popularity during the 2016 election. Trump campaigned heavily in oil patch regions and tapped into people's anger. He blamed the struggling oil industry on President Obama's regulatory policies and promised to use his business prowess to unleash a U.S. energy revolution". (Yeah, how's that working out for you?)
Please don't get the impression that this is a book filled with facts and figures. The author illustrates the issues by concentrating heavily on characters she meets in the oil fields. Middle-class people working in the area. She explores the effects of working the industry has on these people, their families, and their friends. She covers a 50-ish woman working the area, an alcoholic drifter, a young family man and his family, and a priest, amongst others.
If I had one issue with the book, it is that I wish Briody would have covered a larger segment of people in the area. Perhaps some people actually involved in the oil industry (above the common working people). Maybe some more of the people who were from the area prior to the boom, and their feelings and experiences. Some of the state representatives, and explored their opinions. I think the book would have been much better if the author had explored a wider range of characters.