Blaire Broidy, The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017), 352 pages, $27.99, hardcover.
Sierra Crane Murdoch, Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country (New York: Random House, 2020), 379 pages, $18.00, paperback.
John Sayles, Yellow Earth (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020), 416 pages, $28.00, hardcover.
The New Wild West
North Dakota was the first place to experience the U.S. boom in fracked oil. The first well using the new technology of hydraulic fracturing was drilled in the state’s oil-rich Bakken shale formation in 2007. It was a huge producer, and news about it and the passage of a new state tax break for oil drilling generated much excitement in the oil industry. Large sums of investor money began flowing into companies exploring the Bakken formation. More and more wells were successfully opened up by the fracking genie—and by 2014, North Dakota had become the country’s second biggest oil producing state, trailing only Texas in volume of oil produced.
Early business news reports on the North Dakota boom typically painted a glowing picture of its economic effects: big payments to lucky leaseholders, huge increases in oil field employment, and crowds of customers spending lots of money in the bars, restaurants, and other businesses in the Bakken area. But that was only part of the story. The fracking boom also created a raft of problems in western North Dakota: streams polluted by illegal dumping of fracking wastes; local roads torn up by heavy truck traffic going to and from drilling sites; shortages in housing, with many oil-field workers forced to live in temporary “man camp” settlements fashioned from trailers or shipping containers; and major increases in public brawling, sexual assaults, sale of illegal drugs, and other criminal conduct. These problems have been fairly well documented by the national news media (and in a number of film documentaries). Blaire Broidy, Sierra Crane Murdoch, and John Sayles all paint a similar dark picture of the effects of the Bakken boom. But they do so in different ways.
Blaire Broidy’s The New Wild West provides a good introduction to the development of the boom. As with all booms, the big draw for those who migrated to North Dakota was economic gain—the prospect of a hefty boost in personal income. And for a time, those who landed a job in the Bakken oil fields were well rewarded on payday. In 2012, Broidy reports that workers were paid from $20 to $40 an hour, which—with overtime and additional per diem bonuses just for showing up on the job—often added up to a hefty six-figure income at the end of the year. But as veterans of the oil industry knew, the spectacular paydays would not last; sooner or later, booms come to an end and jobs in the oil patches are cut back. Unlike some parts of the industry, such as pipeline construction and refinery operations, oil-field workers have no union representation, which means they have no contractual guarantees about wages, no negotiated rules about mandatory overtime, disciplinary actions, or layoff procedures, and no union oversight of workplace hazards. According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor, oil-field work is the second most dangerous occupation in the country, with only agricultural workers having a higher fatality rate. When oil-field workers suffer a serious job-related injury, they can file a claim for worker’s compensation. But, according to Briody’s research, many do not because of company opposition, a fear of retribution, and weak state oversight of compensation claims—another consequence of not having a union to protect basic rights.
What Broidy gives us in The New Wild West is a colorful mix of documentary research and field reporting. We are told about North Dakota history, earlier oil booms in the state, fracking technology, environmental concerns about fracking, and the complicated history of the Fort Berthold Reservation (which sits near the center of the Bakken formation and is home to Three Affiliated Tribes of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation). These chunks of background information are woven into a stream of field reports about the experiences of five local witnesses: an oil-field worker, the spouse of an oil-field worker, a Williston minister who organized a temporary housing shelter, an environmentally concerned local farmer, and an alcoholic drifter who works at occasional construction jobs. You encounter lots of personal detail in these reports—stories about difficult marriages, money problems, binge drinking, drug use, and other rough times. But, along with the reality television fare, you also get some vivid firsthand accounts of the dirty, exhausting, and dangerous work routines of a fracking operation. And the problems you are likely to encounter if you are a woman working on a drilling crew. Broidy also offers memorable descriptions of the limited housing choices; for some unlucky workers, home-sweet-home was the cab of their pickup truck. Although the field reports focus on the experiences of only five people, Broidy interviewed many others during her time in North Dakota, and the book includes a range of local commentary—and concerns—about the ill effects of the Bakken boom.
Sierra Crane Murdoch’s Yellow Bird tells the story of an unusual missing person investigation during the height of the fracking boom. The star of the tale is Lissa Yellow Bird, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation. In 2012, she organized a private search for Kristopher Clarke, a worker who had gone missing from his oil-field trucking job in Fort Berthold in early 2012. Although Clarke was a non-tribal outsider, this was not an issue for Yellow Bird. “Her interest in his disappearance,” writes Murdoch, “may have seemed misplaced were it not for the fact that it made as much sense as every other random interest she had taken in her lifetime.” After graduating from college, Yellow Bird had bounced from one job to another, floated through a series of relationships, had five children, developed a taste for heroin and other drugs, and was eventually sent off to prison for drug dealing. She was still on parole when she got involved in the search for Clarke.
Although Yellow Bird is ostensibly a crime story, it also looks at the ways the fracking boom affected Fort Berthold. When oil companies came to North Dakota in the early 2000s, there was great interest in the area beneath Fort Berthold, which was estimated to hold as much as a third of the state’s shale oil reserves. Eventually, the reservation was opened up to outside oil companies, and much of the money that came back to Fort Berthold went to a small number of sharp-eyed tribal members who worked as “consultants” in getting friends and relatives to sign oil company leases: “[They] earned both direct payments for their services and a small percentage of royalties from oil produced on the land they helped lease,” Murdoch explains. “After these men and women acquired all the reservation land there was to lease, many started their own companies servicing the oil fields.” These tribal wheeler-dealers subsequently became known on the reservation as its “oil kings.”
Fort Berthold has also been affected by all the boom-related problems outside the reservation: crowded roads, fatal accidents, housing shortages, noisy and odoriferous drilling sites, illegal disposal of fracking wastes, and increases in crime. A surge in hard-drug use has been a particular concern for reservation leaders. In 2013, a tribal task force on drug use reported that during the previous three years, the amount of drug-related reservation crime had gone from 30 percent to 60 percent, and domestic violence cases involving drugs had gone from 69 percent to 100 percent. The oil boom also exacerbated a problem in law enforcement on Fort Berthold. In 1978, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibited tribal police agencies from arresting or prosecuting non-Indigenous people who commit crimes on tribal lands. As a result, the tribal police in Fort Berthold had no enforcement authority over any of the large number of non-Natives who came to work on the reservation during the boom. Problems with them had to be handled by outside police. But, as Murdoch notes, “deputies and sheriffs were already overworked.… If an incident required a deputy, he could take hours to arrive due to the volume of calls received and the reservation’s enormity.” Fort Berthold became known—especially among outsiders—as a place of general lawlessness.
Yellow Bird’s search for Clarke got underway in the autumn 2012. Over the course of the next year, she spent much of her free time scouring the reservation for leads, conversing with possible informants, checking out stories, and talking with the police assigned to the case. She uncovered a curious business partnership between the chairman of the reservation’s governing council, Tex Hall, and the non-Native owner of Blackstone (the trucking firm that had employed Clarke). She also discovered the Blackstone operator had a very shady past; he had been arrested numerous times, was apparently involved in the local drug trade, and—like herself—had served prison time. “It bothered Lissa that a company owned by white people could profit so easily from Indian land.” Murdoch writes, “if the allegations were true, the company stole from its workers, dumped toxic frack water and trafficked drugs.”
Eventually, Yellow Bird’s belief that the Blackstone owner was involved in the disappearance of Clarke was confirmed. After another business partner in the trucking operation was murdered in Spokane, police investigators turned up evidence that the owner had hired a hit man to do this job as well as an earlier murder of Clarke. In a subsequent trial in federal court, which Murdoch witnessed, the owner was convicted on charges of arranging two murders, plotting four other killings, and conspiring to distribute heroin. Back in Fort Berthold, news about the murder charges prompted a move to oust Tex Hall, who had allowed Blackstone’s trucks to operate on the reservation. An outside firm was brought in to examine Hall’s conduct in office, and its final report “confirmed what some tribal members had long suspected—Tex had used his position as chairman to enrich himself.” Shortly after the report came out, Hall was voted out of office. In the election to succeed him, the two candidates talked about the need to address the ill effects of the boom. “Both claimed the tribe had lost control of the boom and promised to rein it in,” Murdoch comments, “and both blamed this loss on the chairman and councilmen.”
The murders and subsequent shakeup in tribal leadership was a big news story at the time, and was even covered by the New York Times (whose video report “Oil, Corruption and Death on the Reservation” can still be viewed on YouTube). Unfortunately, Murdoch’s reporting in Yellow Bird does not carry the story of the shakeup in tribal leadership beyond the election of Mark Fox, one of the two “reform” candidates, in fall 2014. She reports that some of her tribal sources were skeptical that the newly elected chair would be able to carry through on his promise to “rein in” the boom. But we do not hear anything more about this. Instead, the final chapters of Yellow Bird look at Lissa Yellow Bird’s evolving family life and her work as an outside consultant on troublesome missing person cases on other reservations.
John Sayles’s Yellow Earth is a fictionalized take on the Bakken boom. Unlike Broidy and Murdoch, both of whom are youngish writers, Sayles has been turning out short stories, novels, screenplays, and films for over forty years now. He is probably best known for his work as an independent film director, which includes memorable treatments of labor conflict (Matewan), the 1919 baseball scandal (Eight Men Out), crime and corruption (City of Hope and Lone Star), and foreign conflicts (Men with Guns and Amigo). As with his films, many of Sayles’s short stories and novels explore the rough side of the U.S. experience, which is also what he gives us in Yellow Earth, his fifth novel.
Yellow Earth features an assortment of characters caught up in different ways in the oil boom around Yellow Earth (Sayles’s fictional place-name for Williston, a town about forty miles west of Fort Berthold). The cast includes oil-company workers, leaders and activists from the Three Nations reservation, the politically ambitious mayor of Yellow Earth, a busy county sheriff, the shady owners of an oil-field trucking company, an eccentric wildlife biologist, workers and players at the Three Bears casino, a smart high school teacher and her flaky spouse, a mix of smartphone-addicted teenagers and the sleazy operator of a strip bar, his star pole dancer, and the bar’s tough ex-con bouncer and drug dealer. There is not much of a backstory for any of these people; in most cases, we get to know them mainly through the jobs they hold. Some of his descriptions are pretty amusing. Sig Rushmore, an ethically challenged oil company landman, is “a guy who looks like he should be selling Hoovers to ’50s housewives.” Mike and Ike, two rowdy young floorhands on a drilling crew, “hire out as a team, were both wide-receivers for their high school teams…drive ramped-up GTOs and rarely utter a sentence unrelated to pussy and its many permutations.”
Sayles is a great storyteller, and we follow his crew of characters through an engrossing set of connected stories about the boom years. Many of the tales deal with work experiences—the wearying grind of long-haul truck driving, the round-the-clock pressure on drilling crews to get their sites set up and ready for the big frack, dealing out many hands of blackjack through the night at the tribal casino, and keeping all the tipping customers happy at Yellow Earth’s controversial strip clubs. One of the more prominent characters in this web of stories is the head of the Three Nations tribal council, Harleigh Killdeer. Killdeer closely resembles the real-life council leader Tex Hall. Like Hall, Killdeer is a charismatic political operator who talks up the tribal benefits of opening the reservation to fracking. He also has his own economic interest in the matter. “Harleigh’s worldview,” observes a reservation critic, “was developed watching Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” Behind the scenes, Killdeer has set up a trucking company to service drilling sites—and partnered with Brent Skiles, a close copy of the real life nogoodnik, who is portrayed as the sort of person who impresses people the wrong way: “Skiles makes the hair on the back of her neck stand up. She’s never run into a wolf in the wild…but she imagines you get the same edgy feeling.” As the story develops, we see Skiles making the same dark decisions about human life that the Blackstone owner made. Curiously, however, unlike his real-life counterpart, he is not called to account for the murders he ordered.
Although Yellow Earth is not a historical novel, Sayles obviously wants us to think about the past as we read it. Each of its four sections is prefaced by a short commentary about the disruptive effects of earlier booms and busts in the Bakken area. In the stories set on the reservation, we are reminded of the historical oppression of Native American communities. (A huge setback for the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation was “the flood,” which occurred in the 1950s after the federal government displaced tribal residents from a large swath of settled reservation land along the Missouri River for a reservoir for the Garrison Dam project.) In addition to the historical material, Sayles gives us a good background picture of what was going on during the boom—the early leasing games, the behind-the-scenes political and business deals, and—as the drilling moved into high gear—growing local concerns about housing shortages, crowded roads, criminality and environmental problems. Sayles also reminds us of the larger economic forces involved in fracking through occasional Wall Street Journal-style news items about the state of the oil industry. The news in the novel’s final “Bulletins from the Black Stuff” warns of a developing market bust:
We’re back on the rollercoaster with crude, the benchmarks dropping from June’s $105 per barrel to a shaky $59, lowest in years.
The market downturn cited at the end of Yellow Earth continued through 2015, with the price of oil dropping even further to $37 per barrel by the beginning of 2016. As the economics of fracking became increasingly problematic, many Bakken operators shut down their drilling sites and laid off workers. In 2014, North Dakota’s oil fields employed 63,000 workers; by 2016, the number had dropped to 30,000. Many of those who lost their jobs pulled up stakes and moved out of the area. Man camps closed down, stores reported declining sales, and there was less work for the local police. “The boom was over,” Murdoch writes in the final chapter of Yellow Bird.
In the early months of 2016… anyone I talked to in the industry told me the pace of development would never be what it had been before.… Drillers no longer needed as many workers…companies had become efficient in their hiring. Booms, I learned, are inherently wasteful. They come to an end, in part, because companies catch up to them—learn to do more with less.
At the beginning of 2021, after several years of a rebound, the Bakken was still being fracked with lots of oil being pumped out of the region’s wells. But all was not well. In December, the number of rigs drilling in the region had dropped to eleven (at the height of the boom, close to two hundred rigs had been at work in the area) and the December production of oil from Bakken wells was about 20 percent lower than it had been a year earlier, in December 2019. The slowdown in production was largely due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But that was not the only problem. Much of the recent drilling in the Bakken has been outside of the region’s richest—most oil dense—core area, which has been largely tapped. According to a Forbes analyst, this change signals “the decline and fall of the Bakken play.” On top of everything else, there has also been a significant drop in investor confidence in the economics of the fracking industry. Although fracking has been responsible for a huge increase in U.S. oil production, most operators have never turned a profit and many have gone bankrupt. According to a 2020 summary from Deloitte:
The U.S. shale industry registered net negative free cash flows of $300 billion, impaired more than $450 billion of invested capital, and saw more than 190 bankruptcies since 2010.
Looking to the future, the biggest long-term challenge for fracking—and the entire oil and gas industry—is the surging growth of renewable energy and the transition to electric transportation. As the United States reduces its dependence on fossil fuels, we will see major changes in the country’s oil and gas field regions. According to a recent estimate from the Financial Times “nearly $900 billion worth of reserves—or about one-third of the value of big oil and gas companies—is at risk of one day becoming worthless as market and policy forces continue to undercut hydrocarbon economics.” When the big shutdown finally takes hold in the Bakken, the frackers will have gone and most wells abandoned, and people in the region will still have to deal with the illegal trash dumps, polluted streams, health problems, and other unfortunate effects of the boom. For those who live on the Fort Berthold reservation, the oil years will likely be remembered as a major time of trouble. “Many people on the reservation,” Murdoch writes, “told me they considered the oil boom another layer in their tribe’s traumatic history. Years from now…their children would talk about the boom just as their elders talked about the flood.”