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This Is Your Town on Fracking
Energy independence sounds great—until you spend the night in a North Dakota Amtrak station and experience the boom’s dark side.

Not long ago I found myself stranded in Williston, North Dakota. You might have heard of it. Despite being the eighth-largest city in the 48th most-populous state, Williston has won some infamy in recent years. It's at the center of an oil boom that’s likely to make the United States a net exporter of fossil fuels in just a few short years, something that was unthinkable as recently as half a decade ago. North Dakota now produces more oil than any state except Texas, thanks to technical advances that let drillers hydraulically fracture (or frack) the Bakken shale formation two miles beneath the region’s surface.

The boom has introduced tens of thousands of newcomers to the area around Williston, jammed the dirt and gravel roads with heavy trucks, littered those byways with windshield-shattering debris, and clouded the air with dust. (Which also chokes livestocksmothers crops, and complicates dinner preparation. “I have to wash my dishes after taking them from the cupboard, they’re so coated in dust,” a local rancher told me.)

I was stuck in Williston because a small rock had punched a hole in the gas tank of my rental car. My plane was leaving Minot—two hours to the east—early the next morning. Every repair shop in town was booked solid for a week, and there wasn’t a single car, truck, or minivan available for hire. Fortunately, there was Amtrak. The Empire Builder, bound for Chicago from Seattle, was due into Williston at 7:09 p.m. and would deliver me to Minot in a little more than two hours—for just $28. Delightful, I thought, and settled down in the small brick train station to wait.

The first bad news came at 6:30. The train would be delayed. For how long? “I have no information,” the stationmaster said as she decamped for the sidewalk, where she would kibitz with the locals and chain smoke for the next several hours. I tried to read but was distracted by the steady stream of young ladies moving in and out of the station bathroom, dressed in low-cut tops, high heels, and slinky leggings. Prostitutes returning to Minneapolis, a fellow traveler informed me sotto voce.

A drunk staggered from one of the strip clubs to his jacked-up truck, screaming obscenities at an invisible enemy.

An hour passed, and I went outside to pace. The sidewalk was smoky, of course, and music wafted from the two strip clubs uphill from the train station, which sat on a rotary at the dead end of Main Street. In this merry atmosphere I chatted with itinerant oilfield workers and locals, visiting grandmothers, and the loquacious stationmaster, who told me the Empire Builder’s on-time rate, the previous month, was 0 percent. There was track work, of course, and conflicts with freight trains, but also collisions with trucks carrying oil, gravel, sand, water, and chemicals. The trucks were driven by exhausted young men servicing drill sites and fracking operations. (Developing a single fracking well involves forcing millions of gallons of water, laced with chemicals and sand, down boreholes that stretch for miles. The pressure cracks the shale, releasing oil and chemically polluted water. The liquids and other equipment are hauled in and out in trucks—thousands a day for every well under development.)

A racket up the street drew my attention. The stationmaster and I watched, slightly amused, as a drunk staggered from one of the strip clubs to his jacked-up truck. Screaming obscenities at an invisible enemy, he flopped backward out his pick-up door onto the pavement, and tried again to mount his own cab. After three attempts, he achieved the driver’s seat and began furiously revving his V-8 engine.

“Watch out if he gets it in gear,” the stationmaster said. “Sometimes the drunks don’t make it around this turn”—meaning the rotary in front of her station.

Almost as if on cue, the truck lurched, its tires squealed, and the sidewalk loiterers, including me, scattered like chickens. The pickup hurtled down Main Street, gathered speed, jumped the curb, and smashed head-on into the Amtrak building. “What did I tell you?” the stationmaster said, flinging her cigarette to the street in disgust. “Now I’ve gotta fill out a police report.”

* * *

The oil and gas industry employs more than 40,000 people in North Dakota, and in 2011 it generated $2.24 billion in state and local taxes. In Williston, where the population has more than doubled in the last decade, unemployment is less than 1 percent, and even fast-food employees can make $15 an hour. But every boom has an underbelly, and in the Bakken it’s no different. (See “Growing Pains: Scenes from the North Dakota Drilling Boom” and “In North Dakota and Nationwide, A Boom in Health Problems Accompanies Fracking” for previous OnEarth reporting on the subject.) If you can get a hotel room in Williston, it will set you back $200 a night; apartments that used to rent for $300 a month now command $2,000. Traffic has increased, along with air pollution, job-site accidents, highway accidents, sexual assaults, bar fightsprostitution, and drunken driving. Municipalities have more litter and garbage to haul away, and more sewage to treat. Police and other emergency workers are burning out; the new hires—who get promoted quickly—have almost zero experience on the job.

For years, western North Dakota counties have complained that not enough of the state’s oil and gas production taxes ($3.4 billion in 2011-2013) were filtering down to the places that have borne the brunt of this activity since the fracking boom began in 2006. But in early May, Governor Jack Dalrymple signed a bill to distribute $1.1 billion over two years—a tripling of the previous allocation—to counties impacted by fracking. The money will pay to fix roads damaged by heavy truck traffic, build infrastructure like schools and affordable housing for tens of thousands of temporary residents, and provide law enforcement to protect and police the population.

The money also will be disbursed to hospitals, which face increasing debt from uninsured, transient patients; to centers for the elderly and disabled, which have trouble retaining employees tempted by better-paying jobs in the oilfields; to fire districts, which need more equipment, training, and manpower to address oil-related calls; and to emergency medical technicians, who, as one might expect, are busier than ever. (North Dakota ranks last on a recent nationwide survey of worker safety, with 12.4 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2011, versus a national average of 3.5.)

Bakken towns are desperate for relief and say they’re grateful for the millions headed their way. But it isn’t enough, many county officials say. Fixing the 500 miles of gravel roads damaged by heavy truck traffic in McKenzie County will cost $100,000 a mile, according to county commissioner Ron Anderson; other projects will have to be put off to pay the tab, he told the Bismarck Tribune. Watford City will get $10 million from the fund, says county auditor Linda Svihovec, but it “has identified $190 million worth of projects that need to take place,” she told the McKenzie County Farmer. And the situation, as regards infrastructure and manpower, is bound to get worse. In April, the U.S. Geological Survey doubled its estimate of the amount of oil available in the Bakken shale and its underlying Three Forks formation. The North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources expects the total number of wells to increase from the current 8,500 to more than 20,000 in the next decade or two.

Williston is far from the only small town, in North Dakota or nationwide, to face energy-related growing pains. Pennsylvania communities that have been heavily fracked for oil and gas from the Marcellus shale report more crime and traffic, and towns in Michigan (the Antrim shale), Ohio (the Utica shale), eastern Montana, and South Dakota (also the Bakken formation) are bracing for similar impacts. Drilling technology continues to advance, increasing government estimates of recoverable oil and gas reserves, while demand from other nations keeps climbing. California is currently debating whether to expand fracking in the Monterey shale, which lies partly beneath the Central Valley, an area already plagued with air and water (quality and quantity) problems (see myOnEarth report “Not a Drop to Drink”).

Illinois recently passed what have been described as some of the toughest environmental regulations in the nation to govern drilling in its shale formations. (Editor's note: NRDC, which publishes OnEarth, pushed for a moratorium on fracking in Illinois and, when it failed, was involved in negotiating for the safeguards, which it still believes are insufficient for fracking to begin in the state.) Though the rules may help protect Illinois’s water, they’ll do nothing to protect civil society from an influx of transient workers and their attendant consequences. Should Governor Cuomo lift New York State’s current moratorium on high-volume horizontal hydrofracking, forested and agricultural lands in the state could see 50,000 to 100,000 wells, according to some projections.

The Empire Builder eventually pulled into Williston, four hours late. The toilets were by then overflowing with sewage, and the café car had run out of food (perhaps a blessing in disguise). The prostitutes found seats and almost immediately fell asleep, heads resting on candy-colored sweaters. I stared out the window at the landscape to the south, black and empty but for the regular march of methane flares. With little economic incentive to collect this gas—it’s worth a fraction of what the oil is worth—the industry burns more than 100 million cubic feet of methane every day in North Dakota, enough to heat half a million homes. (Flaring converts methane to carbon dioxide—about 2 million tons of it each year in North Dakota, equivalent to what a medium-size coal-fired power plant emits annually.)

As the train rolled across the prairie, I considered the price that North Dakotans were paying to help America achieve “energy independence.” It’s a dream that sounds grand only if you can ignore the global warming pollution created by burning all this fuel, or the fact that we’re tapping a finite resource, or the many remaining technical challenges involved in drilling every possible reserve left on the planet. Based on my evening at the Amtrak station, though, even that dream threatens to leave us waking in a cold sweat.

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image of Elizabeth Royte
OnEarth contributing editor Elizabeth Royte also writes for the New York Times Book Review, which called her "no stranger to the pleasures and perils of chasing errant pieces of plastic and other castoffs to surprising (and often disgusting) places." She's the author of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It and Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. MORE STORIES ➔
Comments (5)
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Thank you for the articles on ND and the Bakken. I'm a native North Dakotan horrified by the local and global environmental damage being done. This incredible story does not get enough attention so as an NRDC member I'm pleased to see the good work.
I feel sorry that you saw all the negative of the boom. I was born and raised near Tioga, about 40 miles east of Williston. A few years ago, there were very few jobs. When someone graduated from school they left the state. Now our children, grandchildren, and many friends have been able to come home and fine employment. We had schools that were having a hard time keeping their doors open. Businesses that were locking their doors. I feel that about 95% of the people who have come here are decent people trying to make a living for their families. I feel sorry for the ones who have had to leave their families behind, but as we grow I think things will become more affordable and managed better. Things are changing fast and our area is doing all they can to catch up and keep things under control. I would be lying if I didn't say that I miss our quiet country life, but I am so happy that the jobs here will let me watch my grandkids grow up. I am also thankful for the new friends I have made.
I live here in Clinton Country. I was living in Susquehanna country prior to the start of the housing crash in 2007. Yes it is true the gas drilling has brought jobs to Pa. I find it a shame that instead of fixing the problems in America we turned to blindly support the mentality of a gold rush. Jobs that is what everyone seems to care about. The gas boom did help some local business owners as well. What it doesn't do is address the long term sustainability of communities. While those who work directly or indirectly in the gas industry are able to maintain a higher standard of living the rest of the population is pushed into an ever increasing dependency on Government programs or faced with lower standards of living to include homelessness. The Riverdale Mobile Home park is a prime example of this. Those people were not even a concern to anyone, many of them being elderly. I heard many statements about the rights those people had because they didn't own the land. It was just expected these people were to move their homes at a cost that also skyrocketed or find another place to live with the cost of housing that has nearly doubled. Then the cost of infrastructure will also increase. The local community that would stand in support of the residents of Riverdale will soon be facing the new infrastructure costs of a sewer system. Now the point most who support the gas boom jobs don't get. It is a boom. It will reach a high point just like the housing market and peak oil market. The whole time the only focus people will have is at least we have or had jobs. 20 years from now what new boom will come along not only to support the population of people here but the massively over built systems of infrastructure? I have been also working in the gas industry for the past 2 years and I can tell you it is never a steady job. With the rise in the cost of living of our area it only offers a shorter time of stability when work runs out or slows down. The max unemployment is $575 a week yet this will not support the higher cost of living. I can honestly say I'll be glad to get out of this area asap because of this. so as far as your children and grandchildren sticking around wait just a few more years and see if they don't leave as well, because if they don't own land already they never will. I am leaving because I don't want to end up homeless at 80 years of age like those of Riverdale.
Watch your grandchildren grow up, read about Endocrine Disruption (DR Theo Colburn) from contaminated water in parts per billion and even QUADRILLION, the chemicals in wells or even city water (because they can't even clean it) and don't tell me that haphazard dumping isn't going on. It effects the soft brain tissue of embryos' and features' let alone children playing in surface water to keep the dust down. You'll be lucky If your grand children make it through High School and If they do what kind of an IQ. will they have. Do some research why do you think they where controlled 40 to 50 years ago, BECAUSE THE ARE HAZARDUS. And that's the reason for THE HALABERTON LOOP HOLE, Exempting all these unhealthy practices. RESURCH before being so happy your future generations are going to be so well of. In PA. they have already decreased the royalties by up to 80% and still producing the same amount of gas and oil. Ya if they live their land is worthless because NO one will mortgage or insure the property. THANX jc.
YAY TO FRACKINGGGG :)))