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This Is Your Town on Fracking

• June 17, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: KARENDESUYO/FLICKR)

Elizabeth Royte finds herself stranded in Williston, North Dakota, at the heart of a new oil boom in the United States.

This post originally appeared on OnEarth, a Pacific Standard partner site.

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 livestock, smothers 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.

Energy independence is 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.

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 zero 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 one 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 fights, prostitution, 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 my OnEarth 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’ 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 two 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.

Elizabeth Royte
The author of Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It and Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, Elizabeth Royte is an OnEarth contributing editor. She 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."

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