comments_image Comments

Boomtown USA: 10 Photos from the Oilfields of North Dakota's Bakken Shale

Small communities along the prairies are busting at the seams, and much of the growth is not pretty.

Photo Credit: Tara Lohan


Editor’s Note: Tara Lohan is traveling across North America documenting communities impacted by energy development for a new AlterNet project,  Hitting Home. Follow the trip on  Facebook. All photos below by Tara Lohan/Meghan Nesbit.

The Bakken Shale is a subsurface rock formation in the Williston Basin that encompasses large swathes of western North Dakota, spilling into Montana and Saskatchewa. Drillers hit oil in the Bakken in 1951 and it has been long known to hold vast reserves, but it wasn’t until a decade ago that drillers had the technical means to extract it in large volumes — horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing opened up the gusher. While the shale contains oil and gas, drillers in the Bakken are after the oil. As for the gas, it just gets burned off in fiery flares that can be seen for miles.

Towns in the Bakken such as Williston and Watford City have grown exponentially. They’ve been compared to California's 19th-century goldrush towns, complete with mancamps, plenty of prostitution, brawls, and drug- and booze-induced mayhem. Small communities along the prairies are busting at the seams, and much of the growth is not pretty, socially or environmentally. Last year’s kidnapping and murder of a Montana teacher put the story on the front page, but violence against women and crime in general is on the rise all over the area. 

I took a drive through the Bakken, beginning in nearby Theodore Roosevelt National Park, whose northernmost boundary nearly hits booming Watford City. Here’s what I saw. (Click on the photos to see the full picture.)

1. Well pads, well pads, everywhere.

As of June of this year, the Bakken had more than 9,000 producing wells. All across the landscape you’ll see well pads with drilling rigs, tanks and pumpers. And things are just beginning. Estimates for the number of wells that could be drilled in the Bakken over the coming years start at 33,000 and go up from there. 

2. Hitting close to home.

Drilling isn’t just taking place way out in the prairies, it’s also happening right in people’s back yards.

3. Flaring—and dismal air quality.

One of the biggest environmental concerns in the Bakken is flaring, which is when gases are burned off at the well site. You’ll see flares at just about every well pad. A new report from Ceres revealed that one third of the gas drillers find is being flared off — at an economic and environmental toll. “In 2012 alone, flaring resulted in the loss of approximately $1 billion in fuel and the greenhouse gas emissions equivalent of adding nearly one million cars to the road,” Ceres reported. 

Why? Because companies are interested only in the bottom line and a quick buck. Right now, oil is more profitable than gas, and they’d need to make an investment to collect the gas and get it to market, so why not just burn it, greenhouse gases (and money) be damned.

Earlier this year a NASA photo from space revealed that flaring in the Bakken has rural North Dakota lit up at night as bright as the continent's biggest cities. Looking across the prairie at night is truly astounding as lights are everywhere — and the air quality is dismal to say the least.

4. Now hiring: Job explosion.

The explosion of oil drilling has resulted in an explosion of jobs. Right now, North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate of any state, at 3 percent.


5. Man camps: An influx of workers.

See more stories tagged with: