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.

Low unemployment rates are good, but the influx of workers has also meant a shortage of housing (and a lack of affordable housing for the residents who’ve been living in the area — a common problem with resource-driven boomtowns). 

This has meant that temporary housing has sprung up all over the place. In North Dakota some people have opened up their land to workers to park their RVs and trailers. Others have created man camps of a larger scale with rows of hundreds of RVs or manufactured homes.

And yes, most of these man camps are in fact populated by (mostly) men. Montana publication BIg Sky put the the ratio of men to women in Williston at an astronomical 50-1 to 87-1. Official numbers are likely much lower, but there are many stories of women being hounded by unwanted male attention or being afraid to go out alone.

The lack of affordable housing isn’t the only bad news with the booming population, it’s also resulted in more crime, too. As Big Sky reportsabout Williston:

The 2000 census recorded 12,512 residents, the 2010 census, 14,716. But with temporary workers not registering vehicles or claiming residency, some estimates push those numbers as high as 80,000. This soaring growth has caused widespread increase in crime. From 2009 to 2010, calls to the Williston Police Department increased by 250 percent.

And yes, those white boxes that look like veal crates are really RVs for workers.

6. Trucks, trucks, trucks.

You know you’ve hit the Bakken when just about everything you see on the road is truck traffic — equipment trucks, water trucks, chemical trucks, sand trucks, oil tanker trucks, and pickup trucks.

Photo Credit: 
Tara Lohan

7. Under construction.

The other kind of trucks you’ll see are construction trucks ... and plenty of them. Most of the main roads in the area are under construction. As I passed from Theodore Roosevelt National Park to Watford City and Williston there were numerous construction projects, most of them road-widening. In one spot I was stopped for more than 45 minutes waiting to be allowed to pass through on the only major roadway in the area.

8. Infrastructure.

In 2008, the Bakken yielded less than 70,000 barrels of oil a day. In June of this year it produced 756,980 barrels a day. All that oil has to go somewhere. (Incidentally, the oil-laden train that exploded in Quebec killing over 70 people came from the Bakken.) Currently 68 percent of oil is leaving the area by train, and 25 percent by pipeline (the rest is used by refineries nearby). Here’s a pipeline going in near Watford City.


9. Signs, signs everywhere.

One of the most telling signs of the modern boomtown is the preponderance of all manner of related infrastructure and services everywhere. The streets are lined with billboards and signs advertising worker housing, jobs and cheap food. Besides restaurants (and food trucks), most businesses seem to be industry-focused, providing trucks, equipment, water-testing, spill cleanup and the like.

10. Vast industrialization.

If I took anything away from my trip through North Dakota (and my travelsacross the U.S. this summer) it is that the oil and gas booms are committing our rural lands to a vast industrialization.

I hadn’t been to North Dakota before. But North Dakota has its own badlands, and they’re beautiful. Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which will likely soon be surrounded by drilling, is a gorgeous mix of badlands, snaking rivers and all manner of wildlife, from prairie dogs, to bison, to these wild horses I caught a glimpse of during my visit. 

It’s just a reminder that there is nowhere we can frack that is uninhabited — or so far off the map the effects won't be noticed. It’s only a matter of who is being impacted. 

Tara Lohan is a freelance writer and former senior editor at AlterNet. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, including Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.