In recent years, North Dakota has been hailed across the country as a new Promised Land in a nation racked by economic recession. The flow of oil in the badlands of western North Dakota is equaled only by the flow of money into the area, The promise of jobs, of prosperity, of making a living – the promise of fulfilling the American Dream – calls out to people from around the nation, drawing them to the barren, isolated, booming state of North Dakota.
But the American Dream isn’t here for most of the pilgrims flowing over the state’s borders. The ruse of luring workers to the oil field so that they can ‘get rich quick’ hasn’t led to a rise in well-to-do, respectable North Dakotans. It hasn’t led to the growth of a stable middle class in our state. It has led only to the growth of crime, the growth of shantytowns, and the growth of environmental plundering.
Massive paychecks are squandered at bars and strip clubs and casinos. The young men who work long hours on drilling rigs and live in trailers without plumbing are the same young men who, without putting anything away for the future or giving even a thought towards fiscal responsibility, throw all their money into alcohol and prostitution. These are the same men who get into bar fights, who sell drugs, who kidnap teachers on their morning jogs.
We are told, however, that the ‘boomtown’ image is only temporary. By the time the housing market catches up with the influx of migrants, towns like Williston and Dickinson and New Town and Killdeer will be able to accommodate all of the workers the oil field requires. The officials that run these cities see nothing but dollar signs when they look at truck convoys and fracking rigs and trailer parks.
And sure, they may be proven right in the short term. Perhaps, soon, the shantytowns will disappear and bungalows and apartment buildings will take their place. Maybe the influx of migrants will finally plateau and things may start to calm down. The crime rate may even dip again.
Yet in the long term, this ideal vision of a growing and thriving region on the oil field is not sustainable. Before long, the amount of drilling in the Bakken will drop off, with only pumpjacks to take the place of the towering drill rigs. And pumpjacks require far less workers than drill rigs. The housing market may catch up with demand, but how long will those buildings be occupied?
If we turn our eye to former boomtowns in areas like Texas, what can we learn? We see a landscape not so much dotted with as overpowered by drill pads, rusted pumpjacks, and tumbleweeds. The desert is barren and devoid of life, save for the few residents left with nowhere to go. If you don’t believe me, head to Google Earth and search for Odessa, TX. Take a look at the landscape that the oil boom in West Texas left behind, and you’ll be looking at the future landscape of western North Dakota.
The city officials in western North Dakota won’t tell you that the oil in the Bakken will eventually run out. They won’t mention the fact that there is a ‘bust’ side to every ‘boom’ period in the oil industry. And they certainly won’t mention that the people making real money in the Bakken are the company executives, not the rig workers.
It’s a nice idea for those of us that live in North Dakota – that our isolated and forgotten state could be the savior of the American Dream, a dream that has been for so long in decline in other parts of the country. But it is a false hope and an empty promise. The boom in the Bakken will be fast, it will be furious, and it will be over. Some lingering economic benefit may happen, but if the state of North Dakota does not start planning for the future, North Dakota will cease to gain national attention for its economic influx and will begin to be looked at as an abandoned and forgotten corner of the country once again.