At a time when much of the U.S. was still suffering through the aftermath of the recession, there was one unlikely place on the map where business was booming.
On the flat prairie 60 miles south of the Canadian border, Williston, North Dakota, was exploding. Underemployed and out of work Americans, stricken with black gold fever, rushed to the dusty town in search of the vanishing American Dream. They came chasing six-figure jobs in oil fields experiencing a revival thanks to advancements in fracking, a controversial hydraulic drilling method using a combination of sand, water and chemicals to fracture rock in pursuit of otherwise unreachable oil reserves.
Santa Rosa writer Blaire Briody discovered a dark side to the dream when she hitched a trailer to her 1999 Chevy Metro hatchback and headed east in the summer of 2013 to immerse herself in this new American boomtown, described by one of the people she came to know, as “a wide spot in the road with a Walmart.”
Between 2010 and 2016 the population of tiny Williston swelled by nearly 80 percent. The result was a severe housing shortage, skyrocketing real estate prices, an increase in violence and sexual assault, a disturbing job fatality rate more than five times the national average, and scores of pollutants unleashed downwind from flaring operations.
Briody, 33, writes about what happened to this small farm town in her recent book “The New Wild West” ($27.99, St. Martin’s Press), a work of narrative nonfiction. For a summer she lived in a bleak campground that served as the Williston equivalent of middle class housing for oil field workers making up to $40 an hour (with overtime and per diem bonuses, the average annual salary of an oil field worker in North Dakota rose to $112,462 in 2012.
“I was working as a senior editor at the Fiscal Times and covering a lot of the recession. I read about all of these workers coming to Williston and sleeping in a Walmart parking lot,” said Briody of that stirring of intrigue that led to her to leave her job in New York City to find out what was going on North Dakota.
“They had jobs. It seemed different than all these other places in the country I had been covering. It reminded me of The Gold Rush and westward migration. And at the time, very few people were covering what was going on. I thought there was an opportunity to invest some more in-depth time to get on-the-ground stories and perspective,” she said.
The oil boom set off by fracking over the past decade has turned the U.S. into the world’s largest crude oil producer, surpassing Russia and Saudi Arabia; 90 percent of all oil and gas wells in the U.S. use hydraulic fracturing.
But there is a human and environmental price that comes with all that liquid gold.
Oil workers receive almost no training and work long hours in extreme weather conditions. Briody tells the story of Cindy Marchello, a fiftysomething grandmother who becomes the only woman on a fracking crew that regularly clocked 120 hours a week. Eighty five percent of oil industry jobs are held by men, and the crew ate and slept — often just catnaps — at the well.