"Oilfield Trash" and a Boom That Won't Last

People are strangers out here on the oil patch, and public conversation is terse and muted. You never know when an oil company manager or safety inspector or corporate spy is sniffing around. I learned after the first day in Williston, N.D., that my usual work uniform of an old sports coat and tie made me suspect. Leaving the tie at the motel helped, but not much.

The younger men of the Bakken are not big talkers. The southerners and Texans have learned that their accents mark them as newcomers who can be overcharged or treated with disdain. But they're given away by their baseball caps and camouflage hoodies and scraggly beards and hardened red mud on the cuffs of their baggy jeans.

The thousands of people who come thousands of miles to work in this remote corner of North Dakota don't talk about global warming or destruction of the prairie and badlands, even if they care about such things. Conversation is about work: oil jobs, service jobs, pay rates, labor camps, getting to Walmart before all the other workers. It's the daily topic of the local newscasts and newspapers—even reports of standard drunken crime always note when the suspect made his way to the Bakken to find a job.

"They call us oilfield trash," a guy in his 20s told me at J Dub's, a battered bar and grill by the river. His hands were stained and his hoodie reeked of cigarette smoke. I asked him where he was from and he just said "Florida," as almost every oil worker I spoke to just gave a state as their home. Maybe it's because they've learned it's not worth the time to say whatever exurb or small town they actually come from. I've lived in enough states that I could occasionally drill down to a vague metropolitan area like "it's around Shreveport," but it never went beyond that. The guys don't even have a sports team in common; during Sunday's football games on the TV, oilfield workers sat in little groups based on their employer, not their hometown. Fights happen, but mumbled vulgarities mark most barroom clashes—the price of getting arrested and losing your Bakken job is just too steep. The men's room walls are full of fist-shaped holes, with some of the wounds in the drywall stuffed with dirty paper towels. The advertisement board over the urinal offered driver and roughneck jobs along with rental housing offers at prices that could shock a New Yorker.

Williston's restaurant offerings are as bad as everybody says, so after a number of tragic experiences I went to the only fancy restaurant in town. It's inside a Tudor-style boutique hotel, the only such lodging in Williston, upgraded for visiting oil executives. At the hostess station, a party of three waited in front of me: two obvious oilfield workers and a young woman who seemed to be a visiting girlfriend or wife. The guys were cleaned up, in their cold-weather hoodies over their laundered jeans and mud-free shoes. The hostess was taking her time but finally did seat them in the dining room, which was mostly empty. I was seated immediately after them, and they were already leaving their table and grumbling as they moved to the bar.

Beyond the obvious oil industry businesses and payday loan shops all over Williston, there are a conspicuous number of retail fronts and one-story office buildings offering employee background checks. Everybody needs the usual Homeland Security and tax documents now required to get a paycheck in America, but Bakken workers also need pre-employment and random drug screenings, criminal background checks, and even credit reports. Employment is "at will," as it is for almost every worker in this cold-hearted nation with its open warfare against anyone who isn't rich. Locally run oil service companies sell themselves as caring about employees, unlike the giant energy corporations that routinely shed and displace workers. I eavesdropped on a number of grim conversations at my motel's breakfast buffet about people being blacklisted from their particular niche and how to get around it. A popular YouTube video made by a Bakken truck driver notes that applicants will need to explain not just their work history, but their unemployment history. Everything is checked out.

It's commercial truck driving—not drilling or engineering or laying pipeline—that's the most common and most sought job on the Bakken formation. There are 181 drilling rigs currently dotting the wheat fields and grassland over the massive Bakken formation. Once the wells are producing, the rigs come down and there's just a well and an ever-burning natural gas fire and a row of tall tanks—there are some 2,000 wells in the region, but they're spaced so far apart that it's rare to see more than a few on the mostly flat horizon. A lot of money has been made, especially by the oil service companies like Halliburton. Getting a single well drilled and operational costs an average of $9 million.

Each oil well requires thousands of truck hauls per year. Oil from the wells not yet tied to the pipelines you see being assembled along the roadways must be trucked out. Fracking requires fresh water to be trucked in, and the poisonous spoiled water must be hauled back out again. Pipelines will eventually put most of these commercial truckers out of work. The massive pipeline under construction along Highway 85 between Williston and Watford City will serve hundreds of wells and put many hundreds of drivers out of work, and the men steering those semi-trucks going back and forth over this highway today are watching their eventual layoffs through their windshields.


Whatever the discomforts and indignities, the people with the good jobs seem happy to have them. To make a fair wage while working outside or driving a truck without a supervisor hanging over you, it's a good outcome for a population that has been mercilessly battered by government and its business interests for three or four decades now. And even if it's temporary, it feels fine to work in an industry that's going up instead of down.

But it only feels that way. There are about 14,000 oil jobs in and around Williston. In all of North Dakota, there are some 50,000 oil-related jobs. It's enough to keep the state's unemployment rate at 3 percent, less than half the national average of 7.3 percent. But North Dakota has a population of only 700,000 people.

This boom has already produced nearly 700 million barrels of crude since the first well in 1951. Most of that oil was horizontally drilled or fracked out of the Earth in the last couple of years, at a current rate of more than 700,000 barrels per day. But the oil won't last, and the jobs won't last, and the jobs that exist there today aren't enough to make a dent in the nation's unemployment rates. For this paltry reward that goes mostly to the oil companies, America has shrugged off a coming global apocalypse fed by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

A few years ago, there was talk of clean-energy wind farms over the wheat fields. What arrived instead is industrial blight, poisoned water, and the combined pollution from 24 million barrels of oil extracted per month and a billion dollars' worth of natural gas every year, burned into the air alongside the wells even when there's a natural gas pipeline across the road.

Of course this oil will run out, at least the "recoverable oil," and there are already many gloomy reports noting how quickly these very expensive wells go dry. The jobs will run out, too, and the real number of Bakken jobs is already small.

Compare this current boom's 50,000 jobs with California's addition of 239,000 jobs over the past 12 months alone, and you start to see that the fossil fuel industry's claims of putting America back to work are hype, just as the industry's claims that a few thousand laborers on the Keystone XL pipeline expansion will somehow transform life in a country where 37 percent of America's working-age adults have no work of any kind—90 million Americans of working age are out of the labor force entirely, a number that climbed by 1.7 million people in the past year.


It was a friendly scene at the Wild Bison truck stop the other day, far different from the bummed-out low-grade hostility common to most retail encounters. Drivers were bantering with the ladies behind the counter, and hungry oilfield workers showed great enthusiasm for the steam trays of fried chicken and pre-made breakfasts of scrambled eggs, bacon and pre-gravied biscuits. The truck stop was hiring and a bulletin board there had another half-dozen "Help Wanted" flyers for oil companies drilling in the area, mostly for commercial drivers.

The crude goes to railroad yards; BNSF is the big railway here and has 14 "major" railyards either completed or under construction. The oil goes out by rail, often to Canada, and occasionally with disastrous and deadly consequences. That apocalyptic freight train crash and explosion that killed 47 people and destroyed much of the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic was pulling 74 tankers of Bakken crude.

Service jobs are left for those who can't get the oil jobs. Even Walmart workers and hotel housekeepers do better here than in most of the country, and "Help Wanted" signs are just common enough to be surprising after five years of high unemployment. But as real housing is built and employees with families come to the Williston Basin, the drifters and immigrants have competition from wives and girlfriends of oil workers already in place. And with rent-gouging a permanent part of the Bakken boom, even a decent-paying retail or kitchen job isn't enough for a worker to rent a mobile home or tiny apartment without bunking up. This stage of the boom is already favoring those who have the advantage of a two-income family of white people who easily fit into this very pale corner of the Dakotas.

The lousiest job in the Bakken has got to be the construction flaggers breathing diesel exhaust from dawn to dusk while monstrous trucks rumble by a few inches away. In the 450 miles of driving I've done up here so far, most flaggers I saw were black men.

Ken Layne spent the past week reporting from the Bakken oil boom in North Dakota. The first three dispatches can be found here.