Thursday, January 17, 2013

On the collateral consequences of an extraction boom: too many men, too much light

At least "collateral consequences" is my takeaway from a couple of stories this week about North Dakota, one about the light pollution resulting from the concentration of fracking in the Williston area, and the other about the shortage of women in the same place.  

The New York Times ran this front-page story yesterday about the shortage of women in Williston, North Dakota--and the consequences of that shortage for the women who are there.  The headline speaks volumes:  "An Oil Town Where Men are Many, and Women are Hounded."  John Eligon explains why the proportion of men to women is so high (the aforementioned extraction boom) and then focuses on the consequences for women:
Many [women] said they felt unsafe. Several said they could not even shop at the local Walmart without men following them through the store. Girls’ night out usually becomes an exercise in fending off obnoxious, overzealous suitors who often flaunt their newfound wealth.

“So many people look at you like you’re a piece of meat,” said Megan Dye, 28, a nearly lifelong Williston resident. “It’s disgusting. It’s gross.”

Prosecutors and the police note an increase in crimes against women, including domestic and sexual assaults. “There are people arriving in North Dakota every day from other places around the country who do not respect the people or laws of North Dakota,” said Ariston E. Johnson, the deputy state’s attorney in neighboring McKenzie County, in an e-mail.
I find this latter quote especially interesting in its suggestion that the problem is a lack of respect for the laws and women of North Dakota in particular, as opposed to a lack of respect for laws and women generally. 

In the second story, from NPR, Robert Krulwich writes of what Williston looks like from space:  a major metropolitan area.  The story features several amazing images.  Krulwich describes them:
What we have here is an immense and startlingly new oil and gas field — nighttime evidence of an oil boom created by a technology called fracking. Those lights are rigs, hundreds of them, lit at night, or fiery flares of natural gas. One hundred fifty oil companies, big ones, little ones, wildcatters, have flooded this region, drilling up to eight new wells every day on what is called the Bakken formation. Altogether, they are now producing 660,000 barrels a day — double the output two years ago — so that in no time at all, North Dakota is now the second-largest oil producing state in America. Only Texas produces more, and those lights are a sign that this region is now on fire ... to a disturbing degree. Literally.
Krulwich notes that  some are calling Williston, population about 16,000 (up 8.8% between April 2010 and July 2011), Kuwait on the Prairie.  He goes on to quote an environmentalist blogger for the proposition that drillers in North Dakota "burn off enough gas to heat half a million homes" every day.  State law permits these gas flares to go untaxed and not subjected to royalties for one year, even if the gas is being burned off rather than sold.
But critics suspect that the state keeps granting exceptions. And state regulators seem less than energetic when farmers call to complain about poisons in the air and water. Many farmers in North Dakota can't prevent drillers from drilling — even if they'd like to. Decades ago, the rights to the minerals below those farms were separated from the rights to the land itself — which is why today, energy companies can move in, create drilling pads where they please, move in trucks and workers, without the farmers' consent.
Another post about the conflict between agriculture and extraction can be found here, with links to others on that theme.

Going back to the gender imbalance issue for a moment, NPR ran this related story on January 6, "Australia's Mining Boom Creates Demand for Sex Workers," dateline Perth.  The story quotes one prostitute at a brothel called Langtree's who says it is the best place she has worked.  The owner of Langtree's says it is the "best three, four years of trade" she's seen in her 30 years.  Journalist Sana Qadar explains:
The sex industry here is mostly legal, and it has boomed alongside the thriving mining industry. Sex workers from around the world have flocked to Western Australia, drawn to the big money earned by thousands of miners. 
Perth is the gateway to the resource-rich state of Western Australia, or WA. Sex workers can earn $200,000 a year here — even more than the miners.
* * *  
Most of the clients are younger men who live in the city but fly out to remote mining sites for shifts lasting several weeks. It's a grueling schedule, and it can make starting a relationship difficult. "Leila," 23, from New Zealand says that's what brings the men to Langtree's.
An earlier post about sex workers in northwest North Dakota is here.  An earlier post about other challenges facing North Dakota in the face of the fracking boom is here.

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