The Weekend Wonk: Living with the North Dakota Oil Boom

March 15, 2014

It used to be that “conservatives” meant people who cared about “conserving” the things that have value – whether it be family, home, relationships, community, the land, the heritage. No more.

Whether it’s coal fields, oil fields, the short lived booms wrought by a one-time construction project, a pipeline, or similar greed-driven gold rush.

This is prosperity, as defined by the hucksters of Climate Denial.

Just wait in line. You’ll get your turn.


Tiffany Aho runs a cleaning company in nearby Sidney, Mont. Her company cleans oil field offices in the North Dakota oil fields as well as “man camps,” the clusters of long narrow buildings or trailers built by oil companies to cheaply house workers.

“We get several people when we’re out on locations that ask if we offer more services than just cleaning,” she says.

“Sex services?” a reporter asks.


“At all times, I send two girls — I never send one girl to a location,” Aho says. But that doesn’t stop the propositions from coming.

Scan the North Dakota section of the online classifieds site and you’ll find pages of postings from female escorts with revealing pictures of women offering companionship, massages and more.

Many posts contain disclaimers saying anything that happens is between two consenting adults.

“I mean, you can’t put your finger on it,” says Bryan Lockerby, the administrator of the Division of Criminal Investigation for the Montana Department of Justice.

Lockerby knows the oil boom in his state and in neighboring North Dakota means economic opportunities for organized crime. “Guns, drugs, prostitution — all of that goes hand in hand,” he says.

But law enforcement in the region just hasn’t had the training or the resources to fully grasp what’s happening on the ground.

Agencies are trying to change that, though. There are more highway patrol officers now, and the FBI has a new office based in Sidney that covers the entire Bakken region.

And to address prostitution, Lockerby says, you need to start with a focus on human trafficking.

“Seventy percent of the women that have gotten into prostitution started at the age of 13 to 14, when they were recruited by pimps.”

Montana established a human trafficking task force in 2012 — a partnership among the state and federal agencies such as the FBI, IRS and the Department of Homeland Security.

Still, the task force has only prosecuted a handful of cases since forming.

Adrian, who lives in Montana, says she wasn’t recruited into prostitution. She was originally forced into it, she says, by her adopted parents in Texas.

“I was 11 when I started getting sold,” she says. “And by the age of 15, 16, I was sold to a pimp.”

Adrian asked that her last name be withheld because she fears for her safety now that she’s speaking out. She says going to the police was never an option — she was always so closely watched.

“I mean, if you went to go get help, you were dead. … There’s always someone outside your door when you’re doing what you had to do,” she says. “If they weren’t, they were sitting outside in their cars, so there was no escape.”

CBS Minnesota:

“This is the wild, wild west and that’s the only way I can describe it to someone who doesn’t know,” said Kelsey Wingate, an oil mechanic.

Nowhere can you see the dynamic better than at one of the city’s strip clubs. Women are such a small minority as men move in, often living states away from their own families. The average oil worker makes $90,000 a year in the boom.

Dancers, like Rachel, come from across the country to cash in.  She said on a good night she can make $1,000. Rachel is also concerned for her own safety.

“You do. You need to be careful. You need to be very careful,” Rachel said.

Lily Perkins took precautions. She bought a taser to work late hours at a once-quiet motel that’s just across the border in Montana. It’s now filled with men every night.

“Now when I get in my car I lock my door and I don’t roll the windows down if I don’t have to,” Perkins said.

Perkins grew up in simpler times and can’t help but notice how the news has changed.

“Now, it’s there were 10 vehicles broken into downtown or this lady’s gone missing or these two women got raped last night,” she said.

For the last month, it’s been Sherry Arnold’s story making headlines. The high school teacher went jogging along a busy highway about an hour from Williston. Police said two men driving through looking for work kidnapped and killed her.

“It makes you wonder what else could happen,” Perkins said.

Mother Nature Network:

Oil drilling has sparked a frenzied prosperity in Jeff Keller’s formerly quiet corner of western North Dakota in recent years, bringing an infusion of jobs and reviving moribund local businesses.
But Keller, a natural resource manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, has seen a more ominous effect of the boom, too: Oil companies are spilling and dumping drilling waste onto the region’s land and into its waterways with increasing regularity.
Hydraulic fracturing — the controversial process behind the spread of natural gas drilling — is enabling oil companies to reach previously inaccessible reserves in North Dakota, triggering a turnaround not only in the state’s fortunes, but also in domestic energy production. North Dakota now ranks second behind only Texas in oil output nationwide.
The downside is waste — lots of it. Companies produce millions of gallons of salty, chemical-infused wastewater, known as brine, as part of drilling and fracking each well. Drillers are supposed to inject this material thousands of feet underground into disposal wells, but some of it isn’t making it that far.
According to data obtained by ProPublica, oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids in 2011, about as many as in the previous two years combined. Many more illicit releases went unreported, state regulators acknowledge, when companies dumped truckloads of toxic fluid along the road or drained waste pits illegally.
State officials say most of the releases are small. But in several cases, spills turned out to be far larger than initially thought, totaling millions of gallons. Releases of brine, which is often laced with carcinogenic chemicals and heavy metals, have wiped out aquatic life in streams and wetlands and sterilized farmland. The effects on land can last for years, or even decades.
Compounding such problems, state regulators have often been unable — or unwilling — to compel energy companies to clean up their mess, our reporting showed.
Under North Dakota regulations, the agencies that oversee drilling and water safety can sanction companies that dump or spill waste, but they seldom do: They have issued fewer than 50 disciplinary actions for all types of drilling violations, including spills, over the past three years.
Keller has filed several complaints with the state during this time span after observing trucks dumping wastewater and spotting evidence of a spill in a field near his home. He was rebuffed or ignored every time, he said.
“There’s no enforcement,” said Keller, 50, an avid outdoorsman who has spent his career managing Lake Sakakawea, a reservoir created by damming the Missouri River. “None.”

17 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Living with the North Dakota Oil Boom”

  1. Rita Mitchell Says:


    The article describes horrible conditions from the social and environmental perspectives. What’s additionally awful is the ad for fracking and how good it is for North Dakota, that is tagged on by WordPress. Is there a way to stop the ads? Is there another program to use?

    Thank you. Your work is important, and I appreciate it.

    Rita Mitchell

  2. dumboldguy Says:

    Just like the 12 Years a Slave piece, this one lands with a thud. Peter raised the issue of CO2 being a moral issue in 12 Years, and the exploitation of the land and people in the ND oil fields is also a moral issue. I guess we’d rather talk about ROI, EV’s, and what we can make the next-gen batteries out of. Sad.

    “It used to be that “conservatives” meant people who cared about “conserving” the things that have value – whether it be family, home, relationships, community, the land, the heritage. No more” IS something worth talking about—-it lies at the root of the problem.

    Some dead old white guy once said something like “There are thousands chopping at the small branches of the tree of evil, but very few attacking the main root”.

    • andrewfez Says:

      Roscoe Bartlett, a House republican, representing Maryland’s 6th district goes against the grain and does a ‘peak oil’ lecture to an empty room:

      P.S. This guy ain’t no slick lawyer – he has degrees in biology, zoology, and physiology (PhD), which could explain his sensibility. I’ve heard Euro countries actually look up to and elect scientists in greater numbers than the US.

    • andrewfez Says:

      And, of course, our only hope at getting real conservatives back at the federal level:

      We may see the first piece fall onto the board if the CA senate green lights the resolution (already past the CA house).

      • jimbills Says:

        I happened to see an appearance by Andy Friedman recently:

        He leans right, but I thought he had a really good take on what’s happening with the GOP these days.

        He talked about gerrymandering, which has created districts where only Republicans or only Democrats can win:

        There are really only a few districts in the country that are truly battlegrounds between Democrats and Republicans. What this does is create a race where the primaries are really the election. This polarizes the parties, where with the GOP you have races between two or more Republicans trying to up each other on who is more conservative. Once elected, they can’t really go back on what they said on the campaign trail, as they’ll just get bumped by the ‘more’ conservative candidate the next time around. It creates a situation where compromise isn’t just frowned upon, it’s basically political suicide.

        The means real change on the Congressional level is impossible. I know, never say never, but there is absolutely no incentive for these guys to change, and that doesn’t even cover the campaign finance nightmare.

        Friedman sees Congress as becoming increasingly polarized and fractious, and he doesn’t see a way around that. On the Presidential race, he thinks the same trends will only work against the GOP, as the goal on the national level is really to get the independent and swing voters. As the GOP primaries emphasize who is the most conservative candidate, it discourages reaching out to the middle. He thinks as long as the GOP nominates far right candidates, they don’t have a good chance at the Presidency.

        • andrewfez Says:

          Thanks Jim. Yeah, I think they call that (when a republican loses to a radical) getting ‘primaried’. The Young Turks talks about that from time to time too. There was a recent video they posted, where a republican who was running for something i think at state level got ‘primaried’ because a bunch of Koch brother’s cash flowed into his district against him.

          Here is a related video of a guy giving up after decades of service because of the current situation:

          The gerrymander thing, confounding the popular vote, is pretty much conceding that a particular party for a given area has to rig the game in order to win. The GOP complains about voter fraud, then redefines their district so that hundreds of thousands of votes get funneled away; a bit hypocritical, no doubt.

          I see propaganda from time to time about getting rid of social security. I’ve even seen a millionaire businessman into the social media televangelizing tell his fellow believers in Christ how terrible social security is to the economy and how its taking away jobs and ‘higher salaries’ from people. And i’ve seen people – facebook acquaintances – eat that stuff up simply because the man believed so strongly in Jesus. A poor argument was made that if a business didn’t have to pay social security tax it would pass on those savings to its workers in the form of higher salaries. It’s as if the plebeian believers in the ‘free market’ don’t understand how the market works (cost of operation cuts get passed on to the shareholders, not the workers). It’s pretty sick how a little propaganda could influence low wages workers to advocate for something so diametrically weighted against their financial well being.

          But the majority of Americans like social security. So there is another point of democratic deficit/inefficiency: the radicals who got elected with Koch money and firm stances for Jesus will try to cut out social security, against the will of the majority that voted for them. The majority just don’t love Jesus that much, to give up a chunk of their retirement. And so on, and so on…

  3. Wyoming is not doing better, either, very sad:

    • dumboldguy Says:

      A moving piece that tells it like it is. I love traveling the American West, especially AZ, UT, NM, CO,WY and MT, and it is heartbreaking to see what is happening out there.

      I find it interesting that this piece apparently was made not by Americans for use in America, but for a group in Australia to use in an anti-gas drilling campaign there. Why aren’t we seeing more of this kind of “reporting” here?

      I can’t help but ask the “hero” how much money he was paid by the FF fuel interests to allow them to come in and destroy his land in the first place, and what his ongoing take from royalties may be. If his family is suffering so badly, why don’t they move away from what they were paid so well to allow in. My crap detectors detect a small whiff of hypocrisy and mindless “original” greed there, and although he did a good job, the combination of soul patch and Stetson seems to say “media celebrity”.

      • adelady Says:

        He said it himself. He “bought” the line the companies spun about wanting to do the right thing for the town, jobs for the sons, fathers, neighbours and all the rest of it.

        He’s telling the rest of us not to fall for it like he and his neighbours did. (There’s maybe a bit of a back story there when he mentions that the companies will divide people against each other, but he doesn’t give any details in this video.)

        They’ve learnt a hard lesson and they don’t want the rest of the farming world to make the same mistake. I’m willing to take the story pretty straight.

  4. adelady Says:

    And, of course, we all know that this kind of feverish “gold rush” style economic development is sooooo much better. Much better than, for instance, people getting jobs in their local communities maintaining wind turbines or installing solar on people’s roofs or retrofitting insulation and double glazing.

    That sort of thing is no good at all. You can’t see a concentrated rush of people and $$$$ into one place, can you?

  5. […] 2014/03/15: PSinclair: The Weekend Wonk: Living with the North Dakota Oil Boom […]

  6. This movie, a Frank Capra film, resonates with me, and is the perfect metaphor for today’s oil boom. It’s fitting because Capra was always about the common man and his movies had moral themes.
    “My films must let every man, woman, and child know that God loves them, that I love them, and that peace and salvation will become a reality only when they all learn to love each other.[8]”

  7. […] air, poisoned water, dried up wells, squalid boomtowns, overcrowded man camps, bursting jails and sex slavery.  It’s their version of the future for most of […]

  8. […] What’s interesting to me about this tornado video is not the tornado, but  that it appears to be taken in a North Dakota Oilfield “man camp”. Take a good look. It’s the future that big Oil has in mind for much of America. The new American dream – a nation of migrant workers in the global extractive economy. […]

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