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NYT Finds the Human Story in Shale Boom

Much has been written about the shale energy revolution and how that’s changing global energy politics, but the local story of the boomtowns surrounding the drilling infrastructure hasn’t received the same attention. For the NYT Magazine, Chip Brown has written a fascinating piece on the drastic changes shale energy has had on North Dakota:

In a way … [North Dakota’s] frontier is as much a state of mind as an actual place, a melancholy mood you can’t shake as you drive all day in a raw spring rain with nothing but fence posts and featureless cattle range for company thinking, Is this all there is? until finally you get out at some windswept intersection and gratefully fall on the fellowship of a dog-faced bar with a jukebox of songs about people on their way to somewhere else.

All of which may explain the shock of coming around a bend and suddenly finding a derrick illuminated at night, or a gas flare framed by stars, or dozens of neatly ranked trailers in a “man camp,” or a vast yard of drill pipe, or a herd of water trucks, or tracts of almost-finished single-family homes with Tyvek paper flapping in the wind of what just yesterday was a wheat field. 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.

It’s hard to think of what oil hasn’t done to life in the small communities of western North Dakota, good and bad. It has minted millionaires, paid off mortgages, created businesses; it has raised rents, stressed roads, vexed planners and overwhelmed schools; it has polluted streams, spoiled fields and boosted crime. It has confounded kids running lemonade stands: 50 cents a cup but your customer has only hundreds in his payday wallet. Oil has financed multimillion-dollar recreation centers and new hospital wings. It has fitted highways with passing lanes and rumble strips. It has forced McDonald’s to offer bonuses and brought job seekers from all over the country — truck drivers, frack hands, pipe fitters, teachers, manicurists, strippers. It has ginned up an unreleased reality show called “Boomtown Girls,” which follows the lives of “five bold and brave sisters” in the formerly drowsy farm center of Williston, N.D. Williston, whose population has tripled in the past 10 years, lies in the middle of the 150,000-square-mile Williston Basin, a depression in the crust of the earth that geologists now believe contains one of the largest oil fields in the world.

Read the whole thing. It’s an interesting weekend read, and gives a good balance to coverage of the shale revolution. We can get caught up in covering the far-reaching implications of a story like this; it’s good to remember that actual people are out there drilling whose lives have become unrecognizably different in a few short years.

And there’s something else: these boomtown scenes in the Dakotas today are just the latest example of a recurring feature in American life. Over and over again, the discovery and exploitation of a new natural resource has given people from all over the world the chance for a fresh start. North Dakota shows us our past even as it points toward the future; America still flourishes on the frontier.

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