Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier
April 27, 2018
Maya Rao writes about "the ways in which the largest oil rush in modern US history wrestled with ephemeral and lasting interests, scam and legitimacy, and the power and failings of free enterprise."
Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier by Maya Rao, PublicAffairs, 336 pages, Hardcover, April 2018, ISBN 9781610396462
Western North Dakota, if judged by its population, had been in decline since the Great Depression—the harsh landscape shedding more and more people with each succeeding generation. Because the Yellowstone River, Missouri River, and Little Missouri River “cordoned off the area from the growing bustle of commerce and railroad expansion,” people had once called the area the Island Empire. The land sits atop the Bakken Formation, which contains some of the largest oil deposits in the world. Wells have been pulling petroleum out of the ground there since 1953, but the shale rock and dolomite held the oil in a way that made it difficult to extract profitably. That all changed in 2008. As journalist Maya Rao writes in her new book, Great American Outpost:
Advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, along with a record run of oil prices at $100 a barrel, made production astonishingly lucrative.
An oil boom was on. The official population doubled in five years—and was most likely an undercount because the amount of people arriving couldn’t fit into existing housing, and many were living in RVs and other impermanent living arrangements. McKenzie County even created a position for a Geographic Information System coordinator who “processed four thousand [new] address requests in less than two years” as the number of dwellings surged. Aaron Chisholm, a transplant from the East Coast who filled the job, told the author it would take another year and a half just to catch up on the backlog.
These included trailers, shacks, and “man camps”—temporary employee housing for oilfield workers, which indigenous communities saw as such a scourge that they lobbied to have them banned, a feat eventually accomplished after property developers began lobbying for the same. One such settlement, Great American Lodge, turned out to be a Ponzi scheme that bilked $65 million out of investors around the world before the perpetrators abandoned the oilfield. People lived in junkyards (Rao ate Thanksgiving dinner with a family in one), in shipping containers, in ten by twelve foot sheds. Almost Home Corporate Housing was a trailer park inside an industrial park, downhill from a landfill. When she arrived, Rao found it hard to believe people lived in any of these places, but quickly learned that normal expectations and appearances didn’t hold in the oilfield. One of the occupants living near the landfill was a higher up at Halcon Resources, who likely made several hundred thousand dollars a year. Another was a trucker who hauled oil waste, but “dreamed of being a playwright and wrote extensively in the trailer.” Those in the ten by twelve foot sheds made $80,000 a year when the boom was at its peak. As Rao writes:
The grandly named Island Empire had been invaded by a brigade of junk that was now a semi-permanent occupation. But I loved the place all the same—a lot of us did—for its pastoral charm and warm community. I briefly entertained the idea of living in Almost Home, imagining all the writing I would accomplish in such seclusion. But I couldn’t afford the rent there or anywhere else in McKenzie County.
The trailers in the industrial park next to the landfill rented for up to $2,000 a month. Rent was higher in Williston, North Dakota, than in Manhattan and San Francisco.
Rao was eventually able to find a place she could afford, a place which allowed only women—a segregation of genders that she found was common in the Bakken to keep prostitutes out of workers' dwellings, and sexual predators away from women.
“It’s not like normal America,” warned the landlord, a transplant from Ohio. “It’s like the Twilight Zone.” He had served in the military and managed an industrial plant, lost his job during the financial crisis and couldn’t even land work at McDonald’s. Then he came to North Dakota and made six figures delivering pizza his first year.
Jody Gunlock, like the landlord, like many in the oilfields, had also served in the military. There are even comparisons of the oilfield to life as a soldier in Iraq, with its temporary housing and detritus strewn about—even familiar companies like Halliburton and KBR in operation. But Gunlock, unlike most, was from the region. He retired from the army to a small farm near the Canadian border, and took a job as county emergency manager to supplement his army pension. While he was able to continue the family tradition of farming as a hobby, his day job included managing emergencies related to the oil industry, like tracking down radioactive filter socks that had been dumped in abandoned gas stations and trailers instead of being transported to legal disposal sites in Montana and Idaho. The McKenzie county landfill became the first county in America to install radiation detection panels after drivers began smuggling filter socks into the dump. I could not determine in my reading of the book if it was the same landfill Almost Home was downhill from, but local regulators eventually raised the allowable limit for radiation in an effort to curb the illegal dumping. Yet, during one of the biggest booms in recent history, where one could earn six figures delivering pizza, and a bartender Rao met—with a business degree from the University of Wisconsin, no less—told her, “I’m living out of my car and I make more money than my parents,” Gunlock was requesting “state financial aid to offset the cost of oil development.”
In that month, December 2014, the Berg saltwater disposal that produced the dastardly filter socks injected eighty-eight thousand barrels of waste into the earth—it’s all time monthly high. The disposal went up for sale the following year.
Though she describes much of the media coverage at the time as sensationalized, and some as downright false and fabricated, the rise in crime was very real. Rural prisons became so overrun with new arrivals from out of state that they had to be exported to another nearby state’s prisons.
They used to brag around here that temperatures of 40 below zero kept the riffraff out out, but then the oil drilling came, and the riffraff discovered Carhartt, North Face, and remote car-starters.
And it wasn’t just those working the oilfields as roughnecks and laborers. It was often those running things. Marcus Jundt, a local business owner who ran for mayor of Williston, imagined it could become like Calgary, “which had flourished as the center of the Alberta oilfield, with skyscrapers and a riverfront with condos, jet boat tours, and a historic village.” But Jundt, like many, came to the oilfields in part to outrun past troubles. From a wealthy Minnesota family whose father had co-owned the Minnesota Vikings, he had been forced out of the first company he founded—Kona Grill—after alleged “ethical lapses and mismanagement.” Perhaps not riffraff, but morally complicated to say the least. The author attends a dinner party of another Williston businessman, Dave Noack, facing SEC charges of defrauding five Wisconsin school district pension funds of $200 million. There she met his neighbor, an ex-stripper from Las Vegas who was busted soon after that for running a “drug trafficking ring that stretched from Las Vegas through Idaho, Montana, and North Dakota” selling heroin, oxycodone pills, and meth. Another guest is the former owner of Berg, the company responsible for the radioactive filter socks, who had his own past run in with the SEC. Rao wasn’t there to judge these people, though, and there are many characters whom she spends time with throughout the book—locals and newcomers—who are truly decent, and that her depiction of makes you really root for.
Like most booms, the one in the Bakken eventually went bust, with oil prices falling below $27 a barrel, affecting everyone—no more than those that had always called the place home. She writes of a rancher she knows in western North Dakota who told her that, “as she rode horses there she was closer to than inside the family’s old Lutheran Church," even as, with all “the trailers and tanker trucks and machines, all [Rao] saw, in every direction, was the advancement of man.” She tells the story of a family whose fields and stream are ruined by a burst pipeline carrying the saltwater brine laced with chemicals, metals, and other toxic additives that occurs as the result of fracking. “The stream of water rushing through the farm,” she tells us, “was the joy of Joanne’s life, and the rhythms of the creek wove themselves into her family’s traditions so deeply that they were like an heirloom share between generations.” The pipeline spill that occurred on their land was one of the largest ever on American soil. It didn't receive national media attention, which the author attributes to it being a saltwater spill rather than an oil spill, but the former is actually much worse. "Unlike crude or natural gas," which after all is naturally occurring in the ground, "it was pure refuse," and:
While farmland could survive an oil spill, saltwater scorched any vegetation in its path and nothing would grow in its place for all of time.
The spill, and its remediation, caused the creek to dry up. The psychological effects on the family that had lived on the land for 70 years were just as bad. But western North Dakota is now an industrialized area, the fracking process impregnating the Earth with saltwater, sand, and caustic chemicals, barfing up oil, belching fire and smoke as gas is still being flared off in areas despite the pipelines (“A flare had recently scorched forty-five hundred acres of forest near Watford City after spitting out some oil and igniting” she writes earlier in the book), and diesel exhaust and dust plumes from the eighteen wheelers rolling over the landscape day and night—“the bearer of western North Dakota’s wholesale industrialization—” turn summer into "a season of dust." But most residents are better off financially, even if oil spills, saltwater spills, and a spiderweb of pipelines across the landscape are now a part of life there. “As the ranks of frackers and drillers receded,” she writes, “pipeliners emerged as the final architects of society.” And residents have made money off the pipelines they constructed on their land.
Rao’s book is not decidedly not anti-fracking. It is more a social history of the oil fields. Or, as she writes:
This is not a tome on fracking. Nor should it be taken as a comprehensive account of the Bakken oilfield, a topic too vast and multifaceted for one book. This is a narrative, on-the-ground account of capitalism, industrialization, and rugged individualism in twenty-first-century America. This book is about … the ways in which the largest oil rush in modern US history wrestled with ephemeral and lasting interests, scam and legitimacy, and the power and failings of free enterprise.
Even so, I concluded the book thinking that perhaps the decline of western North Dakota didn’t occur during the generations that people were leaving, but in this one, when so many have arrived. After all, even before the boom turned to bust, and a new normal eventually emerged, most who came never had any plan of staying. As a resident of the Almost Home Corporate Housing, the trailer park next to the landfill, put it: “You just have to put up with the opposite of the American dream when you’re here. When you go home, that’s when you can have it.” The woman who said that was the daughter of the man who built the trailer park.
Of course, the region was home to people before the oil boom began, people trying to live out their own American dream, who will continue to call it home in its aftermath. Maya Rao's fond feelings for that place and its people are deeply embedded in the book. The portraits she paints, of both the people and the landscape, are as often hopeful as they are dark, and as stunningly beautiful as they are tinged with the absurd.