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NYT Magazine Covers High Hopes for the North Dakota Oil Boom


In a recent cover story for New York Times Magazine, contributor Chip Brown conveys North Dakota residents' virtuous ambitions of economic vitality rooted in the state’s shale rock strata.

The state is now the largest oil producer in the country after Texas with a monthly oil output of about 20 million barrels. North Dakota’s oil boom accounts for 11 percent of U.S. oil production, and it is the impetus behind the state’s $3.8 billion surplus.

“North Dakota has had oil booms before but never one so big, never one that rivaled the land rush precipitated more than a century ago by the transcontinental railroads, never one that so radically changed the subtext of the Dakota frontier from the Bitter Past That Was to the Better Future That May Yet Be,” writes Brown.

The article centers on a depression in the earth’s crust called the Williston Basin, which is home to 20 oil-producing geological formations. The most prolific of the lot is the Bakken Formation, which accounts for 91 percent of North Dakota’s oil production. These particular layers of shale rock, which stretch as deep as two miles below the earth’s surface, are the pride of the once rundown region. It has become a brand for economic promise, evident in nearby businesses like Bakken Buffet, Bakken Residence Suites “and a plague of Rockin’ the Bakken bumper stickers,” Brown states.

While the article makes little mention of Indian country, some of the themes remain consistent between the local Indian Nations—like theMandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA) Nation whose reservation sits on top of the Bakken Formation—and mainstream society. Both tribes and the oil-rich communities have experienced the same changes ushered in by the oil boom, such as an influx of transient workers from all over the country— “truck drivers, frack hands, pipe fitters, teachers, manicurists, strippers,” Brown explains. The greater population has spurred a surge in prices, as well as an increase in crime (“aggravated assaults in the oil patch doubled in four years”), and traffic, including a record number of car accidents. (Read: MHA Nation Requests Oil Companies Help Repair Reservation Roads.) On the positive side, the “boom-based unemployment rate” is 3.2 percent, the lowest in the nation.

But perhaps the greatest connection between tribal members and other residents is a shared sentiment. They both hold on to the determined belief and great vision that extracting their natural resources will help them achieve a prosperous economic future—with the land still intact.

Brown reports that North Dakota, in contrast to the Northeast, is prone to turn a blind eye on environmental risk and destruction. Flared gas from the Williston Basin has caused the U.S. to jump from 5th to 14th place behind Russia, Nigeria and Iraq on the list of gas-flaring nations. “This practice raises the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, the gas primarily responsible for global warming,” Brown writes. 

And the risky practice of hydraulic fracturng is accepted without much local resistance. “About 95 percent of the Bakken won’t yield its oil unless millions of gallons of pressurized water full of sand and various chemicals are pumped down the well to crack open hairline channels,” Brown explains. The MHA Nation has been vocal in its opposition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs' previously proposed regulations on hydraulic fracturing that they say would hurt energy development on Indian reservations.

While the uphill journey may present challenges, the overarching hope is for energy independence—for tribes, sovereignty—and that “all those caved-in cabins, withered towns and stillborn dreams—and whatever is left when the oil is gone—can be redeemed,” says Brown.

Related:Montana's Oil Boom Has Made Reservations More Dangerous for Women