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The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown

The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown

by Blaire Briody


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Williston, North Dakota was a sleepy farm town for generations—until the frackers arrived. The oil companies moved into Williston, overtaking the town and setting off a boom that America hadn’t seen since the Gold Rush. Workers from all over the country descended, chasing jobs that promised them six-figure salaries and demanded no prior experience.

But for every person chasing the American dream, there is a darker side—reports of violence and sexual assault skyrocketed, schools overflowed, and housing prices soared. Real estate is such a hot commodity that tent cities popped up, and many workers’ only option was to live out of their cars. Farmers whose families had tended the land for generations watched, powerless, as their fields were bulldozed to make way for one oil rig after another.

Written in the vein Ted Conover and Jon Krakauer, using a mix of first-person adventure and cultural analysis, The New Wild West is the definitive account of what’s happening on the ground and what really happens to a community when the energy industry is allowed to set up in a town with little regulation or oversight—and at what cost.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250064929
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/26/2017
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

BLAIRE BRIODY is a journalist who has written for The New York Times, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Fast Company, and Glamour, among others. She has worked as a senior editor at The Fiscal Times and she received the Richard J. Margolis Award in 2014 for social justice reporting.The New Wild West is her first book and it was the 2016 finalist for the Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from Columbia Journalism School and Harvard’s Nieman Foundation. She teaches journalism at Santa Rosa Junior College, and she's been a writer-in-residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts, Mesa Refuge, and Blue Mountain Center. She grew up in the small town of Mount Shasta, California, graduated from the University of California, Davis with a degree in international relations, and now resides in Sonoma County.

Read an Excerpt



On a sunny Monday afternoon in early September 2013, I sat in the passenger seat of Donny Nelson's dark blue Ford pickup truck, heading along a bumpy dirt road. Nelson drove and his small, shaggy dog, Lucky, perched on the leather divider between us. The clouds overhead extended for miles across the horizon, shifting and dancing along the curves of grassy hills.

A country singer crooned on the radio as Nelson stared out his window. He'd been explaining how he ended up with the oil rigs around his home. It had to do with mineral rights, and the fact that he didn't own what was below his property. We passed a pipeline construction site on the left. The side of the hill was carved out, revealing a wall of black dirt. Four yellow CAT excavators sat in a line like they were prepping for battle.

Nelson's farmland was one of the most beautiful parts of North Dakota I'd seen so far. I'd been living in oil country for two months, and my impression of the area was that it had become a wasteland. I'd seen more traffic, dust, and heavy industry than in any major metropolitan city I'd visited — in a state that, a mere three years before, had the third-lowest population in the United States. But this area of North Dakota was different. It was part of the Badlands — instead of flat prairie, rolling hills and eroded rock formations speckled the golden landscape. Theodore Roosevelt, who lived in North Dakota as a young man, once described the Badlands as "so fantastically broken in form and so bizarre in color as to seem hardly properly to belong to this earth."

As Nelson talked, he leaned forward in his seat, looking off into the distance. "Do you see that smoke?" he asked, pointing to the hills on the left. I saw nothing at first, but as I stared at the spot he was gesturing at, I saw gray smoke billowing up into the sunny sky.

Nelson drove faster, and Lucky sat up, sensing something was wrong.

"I definitely smell smoke," said Nelson. "It's right in the middle of my pasture."

We curved around a corner, and I held onto the door to keep from sliding. Nelson navigated the truck off the dirt road and onto the hilly pasture. My head almost hit the top of the cab. Finally we saw the source of the smoke: It was coming from an oil well site on Nelson's land.

Nelson pulled up and stepped out of his truck, and I followed. About six Hess employees stood around the singed grass, with one guy hosing it down. The smoke from the blackened patch floated up in thin strands into the blue sky.

One guy recognized Nelson and walked over. "Hi, Donny, sorry about this. A bulldozer hit a rock and created a spark. Luckily we saw it before it got too bad."

Nelson nodded, looking frustrated. He knew the guy, he told me later. He was a local. Nelson told them to update him if anything else happened, and we went on our way. "As you can see, nobody called the fire department," he said as we lifted ourselves back into the truck. I learned later that the fire was never reported and Nelson didn't receive compensation for the damage. Although he tried to be patient with the workers, knowing it wasn't always their fault, he wanted them to be respectful of his home. "If they didn't tell me about it, I'd make them pay," he said. "Because then you just get mad."

Nelson is 49 years old and owns about 8,000 acres of farmland, growing peas, oats, barley, durum, flax, and corn, and raises cattle, in what used to be in one of the most remote areas of the country. The entire 23,000-acre area he lives on has fewer than 10 families. Nelson went to elementary school with Wanda Leppell down the road, and almost every day he stops by the house of his neighbor Roger, whom he's known most of his life, to see how he's doing. When I visited Nelson, my GPS couldn't locate his address, so he gave me directions by providing the mile marker for his dirt road.

Nelson's grandfather came to North Dakota from Minnesota during the Homestead Act in the early 1900s. He took the train carrying a few suitcases of supplies to the small town of Tioga, 70 miles from Nelson's farm, and had to wait until the Missouri River froze over to cross it. "He came over this hill right behind my house," Nelson said, pointing, "and said, 'This is where I'm going to stay.'" The original farm is along Clark Creek (Nelson pronounces it "Clark Crek"), which was discovered by explorers Lewis and Clark. Nelson grew up working on the farm. His father never had hired help, so as a small child, Nelson hauled water, pitched hay, and rode in his father's old Minneapolis-Moline tractor. His older brother did the tougher jobs. His father would strap his brother into a second tractor, stick it in gear, and tell him to turn off the key if he ran into any problems. "Everybody did stuff like that," said Nelson.

"We knew everybody. You didn't lock your doors. We had no traffic. That's what we liked and that's why we farmed out here and put up with the winters," he explained. "This was one of the most beautiful places. Everybody thinks their home is the most beautiful, but it was. It's a unique area and I'll never see it the same. I'm afraid future generations never will either."

Nelson drove up to a lookout point, and we stepped out of the truck. As we stood looking out onto the expansive hills, a blend of amber and burnt orange swirled as the prairie grasses waved in the wind. The clouds cast dark shadows onto the wheat fields, and we saw oil well after oil well, each one pumping up and down methodically — their black exteriors silhouetted as the sun dipped below the horizon. Because underneath our feet, two miles below the earth's surface, lay the Bakken Formation, a layer of shale rock that held some 170 billion barrels of oil trapped in its crevices and pores. It was the largest continuous oil accumulation the country had ever seen — and the United States had recently discovered how to tap into it.



When I first began researching this book, I knew little about the oil industry or North Dakota. I was working at a small online news site in New York City, mainly covering the aftermath of the 2008 recession and the housing crisis. Searching for energy wealth in sparsely populated land seemed like something out of a bygone era — a time when the United States cared little about the environment or those living off the land and simply sought acreage to claim or fossil fuels to extract. I had no idea how wrong I was. From where I was sitting in a Manhattan office building, North Dakota seemed like a forgotten state and oil, a forgotten American industry.

I learned about North Dakota's oil boom in 2012 after it was already well under way. News organizations like CNN and Business Insider were covering the boom, but other national media organizations hadn't caught on. I clicked on one story and stared at a photo of men living in Walmart's parking lot. They huddled in lawn chairs next to RVs or bundled up in their pickup trucks. I had read so much about the "tent cities" of the recession, but something about this was viscerally different. These people had jobs. North Dakota had the lowest unemployment rate in the country — how could they be living this way? They weren't refugees, fleeing from their homes because of war and destruction. They weren't immigrants, fleeing their countries because of corruption and poverty. They were, for the most part, American. Coming to a new land for opportunity. Surviving in a harsh environment to make a better life. Traveling in droves to compete for jobs and a livelihood. It all sounded so familiar — the Gold Rush, the Dust Bowl, the Westward Expansion. But in 2012? Really? For oil? I had assumed, perhaps naively, that things were different today. That you might lose your house or your job in a recession, but there were protections. Government programs like unemployment insurance and housing vouchers that were designed to help you rebuild your life in your current location. Of course there were a few exceptions, but those were exceptions, right? Not thousands of Americans becoming financial refugees and migrant laborers in order to achieve any monetary stability.

In many ways, North Dakota's boom represented a shift in the nature of blue-collar work in America. Manufacturing lost 6 million jobs between 2000 and 2009, and the construction industry shed another 2 million during the recession. As the economy recovered, economists touted the "tech boom" and "knowledge workers," but many blue-collar workers didn't have the resources, education, or desire to make this shift. After blue-collar workers were laid off by the millions from plants, factories, farms, and construction sites, the oil and gas industry, particularly in western North Dakota, emerged as a shining mecca.

As oil and gas boomtowns cropped up across America, blue-collar workers were becoming the new migrant laborers of the twenty-first century, following work wherever it took them and surviving in unstable environments. Most of those traveling to North Dakota had been beaten down by the Great Recession, had watched their stability, comfort, and income stripped away, and were looking for a second chance at the American Dream. North Dakota could give them that — if they could handle it.

The images of the men living at Walmart stayed with me. I discovered that people were migrating to North Dakota not just because of oil but because of the controversial practice of fracking, which had opened up new reserves. I was shocked I hadn't heard more about what was happening there. Whatever it was felt big. Gold Rush big. Why wasn't everyone talking about this?

In 2013, I left my job in New York and moved to Williston, North Dakota, over the summer to live in this new frontier and embed myself in the shale oil revolution. North Dakota felt like a world away from New York City, and almost everyone I knew thought I was crazy, but the move helped me understand a reality thousands of Americans faced. Those migrating to North Dakota were part of a population that seemed invisible to the liberal coastal cities where I'd been living. After spending a summer in Williston and returning several times over three years, I began to understand just how hidden the oil and gas industry, its workers, and those affected by drilling are from most of America. I didn't know I would hear stories so desperate and see living conditions so grim, I often had to remind myself I was standing on American soil.

North Dakota, a state that was all but forgotten, had put the United States back on the energy map. Oil companies discovered that by using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and horizontal drilling, they could unlock billions of barrels of oil in the state that were never accessible before. The state heralded the boom and published press release after press release on its economic growth. It appeared thousands of workers were achieving the American Dream — they risked it all to start a better life and worked hard, and many were rewarded with six-figure incomes. They provided for their families and maybe put a down payment on a home. But when you looked closer, this wasn't the whole story. Behind the positive spin lay a darker side of the boom.

Those living in North Dakota, on the front lines of the domestic oil war, watched their lives change forever. Small-town locals saw their beloved communities transform overnight into male-dominated cities. Farmers watched the land that had been in their families for 100 years plowed away to make room for more wells; Native Americans found toxic waste illegally dumped on their reservation; and laborers faced injury and death while living apart from their families. The government had cleared the way for the energy industry to set up with little regulation or oversight — and the people most affected felt silenced.

I chose Williston because it was the epitome of a modern-day boomtown. The living conditions were bleak, the schools overcrowded, the traffic maddening, law enforcement understaffed, housing limited and unaffordable, and city employees overwhelmed. Yet despite all of this, people still came by the thousands. Each new arrival traveled to the region to improve his or her life in some way, striving for stability and happiness in the midst of a chaotic oil town. Like many boomtowns before it, the city of Williston had two paths it could take — it could become a permanent hub, like Denver or San Francisco, or it could disappear into a ghost town, becoming yet another lesson in a history book.

To help me understand the boom, I closely followed the lives of Americans who represented different sectors of those affected by shale oil exploration: a farmer and his Native American neighbors who were forced to stand by and watch their land drilled; a 56-year-old grandmother who found herself single and broke after 28 years of marriage and became the only woman on a fracking crew; a stay-at-home mom who followed her husband to the Wild West and tried to raise children there; a church pastor struggling to maintain a community in his small town; and a homeless day laborer who slept in his car, hoping for a second chance at life.

In late 2014, oil prices took a nosedive, and North Dakota's boom did as expected. Many people left almost as quickly as they had come. But where would they go? And what would happen to the locals left behind? The boom in North Dakota will have lasting effects on generations to come. Shale drilling has completely reshaped America's oil landscape, and though some companies struggle to survive with low oil prices, the oil itself isn't going anywhere. Many see the return to black gold as the beginning of a new era, particularly under Trump, with the United States rising to regain its world leadership status through home-grown oil. Oil companies work to increase drilling efficiency, producing oil at cheaper and cheaper prices to weather boom-and-bust cycles. To understand what footprint America's shale energy revolution and North Dakota's oil boom will leave on the U.S. fabric, we must start at the beginning.



Picture any town or city in America, maybe your hometown, then imagine that the city's population doubles or triples in size in three short years. If it's anything like what happened to Williston beginning in 2009, first the housing fills up, with open rentals disappearing from the classifieds and only advertising by word of mouth. Landlords realize they can raise rents, yet demand only grows. Slumlords with dilapidated apartments, with cracked paint and rodent infestations, quadruple their rents, only to have dozens of people, including middle-class families with two kids and perfect credit, lining up to make an offer. Soon anyone without a high-paying job or a clean record has been squeezed out of the market. Tent cities crop up overnight, families park trailers on side streets and in backyards, workers idle in deserted parking lots and sleep in their cars. A group of six young guys split the rent for one room. The building frenzy begins but can't keep pace with the rush, and contractors capitalize on demand, raising their prices and contributing to the inflation.

Then the city realizes its infrastructure is being pushed to its breaking point. Schools don't have enough classrooms or teachers; contractors install more electrical, sewage, and water lines, but the city's system isn't designed to handle them. Tiny police departments whose officers once spent their days pulling cats out of trees and ticketing out-of-town speeders now work around the clock, responding to more and more calls, ignoring minor crimes and letting criminals back onto the streets after local jails reach capacity. Intersections that once rarely saw four cars at the same time now have lines of traffic stretching a half-mile long. Roads deteriorate faster than transportation crews can fix them. Grocery stores sell out of milk. Gas stations sell out of fuel. Small businesses can't find enough employees to staff their shops because although hundreds of workers are arriving every day, high-paying oil field jobs are everywhere, and living costs reach a point where no one, not even recent high school graduates, can afford to work for $8 an hour.

And all these changes happen while the rest of the country is in the midst of a deep recession. In hundreds of cities and towns across the country, families lose their homes and jobs. They have to pack up their dream home, the one they planned to pay off in 20 years. They gently box up their pictures and sell the furniture purchased on credit. They move into their parents' homes or rent apartments; others sleep in their cars or motel rooms, hoping their poor luck is only temporary. But many reach the lowest point they can imagine, and they know something has to change. They desperately want a way to return to the life they once had. They begin looking for a way — and a place — to start over.


Excerpted from "The New Wild West"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Blaire Briody.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Map of North Dakota xi

Williston Village RV Resort xiii

1 Donny Nelson 1

2 A Forgotten Place 5

3 Williston 10

4 Tom Stakes 12

5 Chelsea Niehaus 17

6 Williston 25

7 Cindy Marchello 28

8 Pastor Jay Reinke 34

9 Williston 40

10 It Takes A Boom 48

11 Tom Stakes 57

12 Donny Nelson 63

13 Cindy Marchello 69

14 Tioga 76

15 Donny Nelson 87

16 Tom Stakes 94

17 Williston 98

18 Rough Rider Man Camp 104

19 Cindy Marchello 110

20 Fort Berthold 121

21 Chelsea Niehaus 131

22 Pastor Jay Reinke 142

23 Tom Stakes 152

24 "On A Muddy Location, Somewhere in North Dakota" 159

25 Tom Stakes 167

26 Donny Nelson 177

27 Cindy Marchello 183

28 Tom Stakes 189

29 Chelsea Niehaus 201

30 Cindy Marchello 205

31 Pastor Jay Reinke 215

32 Tom Stakes 224

33 Fort Berthold 237

34 Chelsea Niehaus 249

35 Cindy Marchello 254

36 Tom Stakes 263

37 Chelsea Niehaus 276

38 Pastor Jay Reinke 290

39 Cindy Marchello 292

40 Tom Stakes 301

41 Williston 306

Afterword 312

Acknowledgments 317

Notes 321

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