Fracking Gave Me the Clap (Honest, honey..)
October 28, 2013
Windbaggers – when you told your wife that your herpes came from wind turbines - did she buy it?
I was once a first responder in my small midwest American town where a big company had come and started building a nuclear plant.
What a lot of folks didn’t get when they saw the utility slide show about jobs, jobs, jobs, – is that, invariably, while a certain number of local workers get hired, some of the demands of these projects invariably mean the local talent pools are quickly exhausted, particularly in a small town. There’s a need for itinerant workers, people with a fairly specialized skill set – boomers, who move from job to job, state to state, working these kinds of projects.
One of the first things local authorities noticed was a rise in the general level of chaos when the community became host to a large number of rootless, mostly male newcomers, who had money, and needed something to do on saturday night.
Ah, I remember it fondly.
Fracking rigs have popped up in at least 17 states including California, Texas, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania. Eighty-two thousand frack wells have been drilled since 2005, according to a report this month by the advocacy group Environment America. Seen in satellite images from space, parts of the Great Plains grow nearly bright as New York City with the light of drilling rigs and gas flares.
The rapid industrialization of North America’s countryside has brought a litany of big city problems to rural America. While critics accuse frackers of fouling air, drinking water, and farmland with swamp gas and carcinogens; prostitution, methamphetamine, and sexual crime have stalked drilling operations.
“There’s like 80 guys for every woman,” said an industry veteran who has watched a rising sprawl of trailer parks, dive bars, and strip clubs consume the North Dakota prairie in recent years. “A friend of mine brought his wife here with him. If he turns his back on her at Walmart, there are guys talking to her when he returns.”
To fill the gap in available housing for a surging transient workforce, company-housing units—known as “man camps”—have sprung up on the outskirts of once meager population centers. It’s work hard, play hard. You are 7.6 times more likely to die working on an oil or gas rig than in any other industry, so it’s understandable that when payday comes, these guys want to burn off steam. Unfortunately for many small towns around the country, a fracking worker’s idea of fun can be a bit debauched.
“Hookers go for $300 a pop,” said the oil worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But if you see a woman in a store or on the street, they get nervous when you simply say ‘howdy.’ Some go into panic mode because of the crude guys around here. ”
Critics of fracking have compared it to raping the Earth, but where drilling has spread literal rape has followed. Violence against woman in fracking boomtowns in North Dakota and Montana has increased so sharply that the Department of Justice (DoJ) announced in June that it plans to spend half a million dollars investigating the correlation. In soliciting grants from researchers the DoJ speculated that “oil industry camps may be impacting domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking in the direct and surrounding communities in which they reside.”
A separate study from the environmental group Food and Water Watch (FWW) released in September notes that cases of gonorrhea and Chlamydia have gone up too, increasing 32.4 percent in heavily fracked counties in Pennsylvania. The study collects statistical data from five years before and five years after congress changed the Safe Drinking Water Act to exempt frackers from disclosing the chemicals used in the drilling process—spawning America’s fracking boom. FWW also draws on press reports from around the country that point to the pervasiveness of the trend.
“We’ve found that fracking brought a host of social costs to communities where drilling has begun,” said FWW’s Program Director Emily Wurth. “These are the real costs of fracking that are never discussed.”
Like gold prospectors bound for California in 1849 and their Dust Bowl descendants who followed during the Depression, or waves of rural, Southern blacks flocking northward to industrial Chicago and Detroit after World War II, today’s modern migration is epic.
But it’s also different. Klefstad and his ilk aren’t packing up their families to escape tough times and search out new opportunity. They’re part of a swinging-door, here-today, home-next-month turnstile migration.
And amid the back-and-forth lurching, Andrew Klefstad is grappling with a hard truth: This modern-day gold rush comes with golden handcuffs.
Like so many fortune seekers out here, the recession left him scrambling to find work five years ago. His father couldn’t afford to pay him back on the dairy farm. Business had dried up for the industrial cleanup company he worked for in Cannon Falls, Minn.
So he lit out to North Dakota. Halliburton, the global energy industry giant, put him right to work. Now, at only 28 with no college degree, he’s earning more than $100,000 a year as the general manager of Mirror Image Environmental Services. He’s cleaning up spills and washing tons of sludge off the countless trucks pounding down the red-clay roads that connect the drilling rigs, nodding wells, railheads and gas flares that riddle western North Dakota.
Klefstad spends three weeks working sunup to sundown, then gets back on the train for a week with Tiffany, Kelvin and daughter Avery back in western Wisconsin. The brutal-but-profitable lifestyle leaves legions of workers juggling split lives of long hours and dislocating separation.
On the other hand, we could change the way we think about energy, and ask ourselves if it might make more sense to have electric utilities be providers of energy services, rather than just kilowatts. In other words, I want to be warm in the winter, cool in the summer, I want a hot shower and a cold beer – those are energy services. I don’t care how many watts or joules are involved.
It might then make sense for a utility to consider whether building the new gas-turbine power plant is necessary, or could the services be supplied, for instance, by upgrading houses in the service area, or providing incentives for ratepayers to buy new, more efficient appliances.
These kind of initiatives boost the economy too, but in a softer way. The benefits don’t just land on one community among thousands, they are distributed evenly among many communities. And the jobs created tend to be jobs that can employ entry level, as well as experienced craftsmen and women – anyone who can dig a hole, pound a nail, or bend metal.
Since new techniques and technology are constantly coming around, and older houses always need updating, the jobs created tend to be community based, secure, and continuous, rather than a boom and bust cyclical.
And aren’t these the kind of goals and values that we can all agree on?
Just a thought.