Sneak Peak of the Bakken Goes Boom

Over the next few weeks, Kyle Conway and I will be offering some sneak peeks at our forthcoming edited volume: Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota which should come out early next month from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. 

Here’s our introduction:

0a Conway

The Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota

This book is about the human side of the oil boom in the Bakken formation in western North Dakota. We began work on it in 2013, when a barrel of crude oil sold for a little more than $90. At that time, economic optimism was the order of the day. People were asking, would the boom last twenty, forty, or sixty years? Harold Hamm, the billionaire CEO of Continental Resources, went so far as to tell the Williston Basin Petroleum Conference, “I still think we will reach 2 million barrels a day [by 2020]. I don’t think that’s over the top, folks” (quoted in Burnes 2014).

Now, as we write this introduction at the end of 2015, that same barrel sells for less than $40. What we did not know—what we could not know—when we began was that the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) would refuse to cut production in the face of dropping oil prices, in an apparent attempt to make oil production from shale, such as in the Bakken, too expensive to continue (Murtagh 2015; Olson and Ailworth 2015). In retrospect, the estimates of a forty- or sixty-year boom seem naive: by all appearances, we were at the boom’s peak. In December 2014, there were 174 rigs drilling in the oil patch; a year later, there are 65. There are also five thousand fewer jobs, and monthly in-state income on oil royalties has dropped from $128 million to $69 million (Donovan 2015). Inadvertently, it seems, we captured an important moment, when the bust people dreaded (but thought would never happen) was just on the horizon.

Our purpose in putting this book together was to give voice to as wide a range of people as we could. We were both professors at the University of North Dakota, so we sought out other scholars. We researched the boom, so we sought out our collaborators. We taught about the Bakken, so we sought out students. But we also read the news, went to art galleries, and read poetry, so we also sought out journalists, artists and museum curators, and poets. The boom was one of the most interesting things we had ever seen, and there were more ways to know it than through the cold rationality we privileged in our scholarship. Journalists, artists, and poets could reveal things we would not otherwise see, experiences or emotions that academic prose could not capture, but art or poetry could. As much as drilling for oil in the Bakken produced an economic and demographic boom, it also was an intellectual and cultural moment for North Dakota, and our book tries to capture that.

Our approach was propitious, if the controversies around hydraulic fracturing (or simply “fracking”) are any indication. In the time since we began soliciting submissions, a wide range of books have been published, each more polemical than the last. In one, an environmentalist asks what happens when she inherits mineral rights in North Dakota and has to choose between her ideals and financial security (Peters 2014). In another, a conservative media darling calls out environmentalists for what he sees as their duplicity and willful ignorance of the human rights abuses inflicted by governments of oil-rich countries on their own citizens (Levant 2014). In yet another, an investigative reporter tells the story of an Alberta woman’s fight for justice from the oil industry (and her own government) after fracking poisons her water supply (Nikiforuk 2015).

In this back-and-forth, it is clear that the pro- and anti-fracking groups are talking past each other. This is where our book does something different. By and large, contributors sidestep the controversies about fracking and focus instead on the social impact of the boom. There is much to learn here: whether we support or oppose fracking, it has had a significant impact on people’s lives. For people living in the Bakken region, life has changed, and we want to understand how. What impact did the boom have on longtime residents? On newcomers? On women? On Native Americans? How did it reshape the healthcare infrastructure? Housing? The media? These are the questions we asked our contributors to answer.

Scholars and journalists shared insight that they gained from their particular perch. But artists and poets did something more: as they talked about how the boom has reshaped North Dakotans’ sense of self—how North Dakotans see themselves and imagine their future—they evoked something akin to emotional truth. For that reason, we have devoted considerable space in this book to their work. Because art has to potential to affect viewers at a gut level, we included, among other things, a catalogue from an exhibit about the Bakken at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo. We also included comments left by members of the public.

We also decided to open this book with a prologue in the form of a prose poem. Language is an imperfect tool. It serves us relatively well when we describe technical aspects of a situation, but in other cases it falls short. We know this most acutely when we experience powerful emotions such as joy or grief and words fail us. In the Bakken, for instance, it is relatively easy to describe the monetary or environmental costs of an oil boom, but it is much harder to find words for the ache we feel when our home no longer looks the same. But in poetry, language comes closest to breaking free of its bounds. When poet Heidi Czerwiec writes, “Given enough time, a sea can become a desert; given enough time, even a desert has value,” she presents us with an image not unlike the art in the catalogue. In the dried up sea, we see our own fall from plenitude to emptiness. But the loss is paradoxical, in that it brings a new type of value. Her image brings the contradictions that undergird our experience into view. Even if we cannot put them into words, we can see them and feel them.

So what do we learn from all of this? What do scholars, journalists, artists, and poets reveal about the human side of North Dakota’s oil boom? Resources are stretched thin, and to compensate, people have had to rethink the social and physical networks that link them to others. As a result, the geographies of western North Dakota—the ways people understand their relationship to space and place—have changed. Part of this change is material, such as the demographic shift from the eastern part of the state to the western part. A decade ago, nearly a third of the state’s residents, those in Grand Forks and Fargo, lived in the narrow strip between Interstate 29 and the Red River. In other words, almost one out of three people lived within five miles of Minnesota. No longer is that the case, as towns such as Williston, Watford City, and Dickinson have doubled or tripled in size, creating unmet needs in social services, law enforcement, healthcare, housing, and other forms of infrastructure.

Part of this change is psychological, too. The stories people tell to make sense of their place in their community or the world have changed. They understand their relationships with their neighbors differently. Some longtime residents and newcomers view each other with a suspicion that grows out of a disparity in wealth and access to resources. Others look for what they share in common.

One result of these changing physical and mental geographies is that many people have had to make do with less, especially those who were already in vulnerable positions. Rents have gone up, but the stock of quality housing has gone down. Travel takes longer and is more dangerous, and unfamiliar people congregate in once familiar places. Even as the boom has subsided, social networks remain stretched for longtime residents, who face new disparities of wealth and ongoing political challenges, and for newcomers, who have left families in faraway homes in search of work. In short, there are more cracks to slip through.

But there is also resilience and creativity. Longtime residents have found ways to extend hospitality to newcomers. Artists have found ways to reimagine their place—which is to say, our place—in a landscape punctuated by oil rigs and tanker trucks. We cannot understand the challenges posed by the boom without considering the creativity it has brought about, nor the creativity without the challenges. One tugs constantly on the other.

To close, let us consider an interesting potential symmetry. In 2013, the bust was on the horizon, but we could not yet make it out. We must not forget that booms and busts are cyclical. Perhaps the next boom is on the horizon now, but as with the bust, we will see it most clearly in retrospect. As Karin Becker writes in her chapter, change has reached a plateau. North Dakota in 2015 is not the same as North Dakota in 2005. People talk of a “new normal.” The state has reversed its longstanding trend of outmigration, and the population is up almost 20 percent compared to a decade ago. The median age is younger, and jobs pay better: even Wal-Mart has to pay $17 an hour to its employees in Williston, where the average annual salary is still more than $75,000 (Donovan 2015).

The changes North Dakota has undergone are real, and we owe it to ourselves to ask how they have shaped us. We would do well to listen to everyone—citizens, public figures, artists, poets, and even scholars. This book is not the final word on the Bakken oil boom, but we hope readers will find in it something useful, a starting point for understanding how the boom has affected us and who it is we have come to be.


Burnes, Jerry. 2014. “Hamm: Bakken Will Double Production by 2020.” Williston Herald, May 23.

Donovan, Lauren. 2015. “Oil Patch Slides Toward a New Normal.” Bismark Tribune, December 25.

Levant, Ezra. 2014. Groundswell: The Case for Fracking. Toronto: McLelland & Stewart.

Murtagh, Dan. 2015. “Shale’s Running Out of Survival Tricks as OPEC Ramps Up Pressure.” Bloomberg Business, December 27.

Nikiforuk, Andrew. 2015. Slick Water: Fracking and One Insider’s Stand Against the World’s Most Powerful Industry. Berkeley, CA: Greystone Books.

Olson, Bradley, and Erin Ailworth. 2015. “Low Crude Prices Catch Up with the U.S. Oil Patch.” Wall Street Journal, November 20.

Peters, Lisa Westberg. 2014. Fractured Land: The Price of Inheriting Oil. Minneapolis: Minnesota Historical Society Press.


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