Sunday, February 3, 2013

Boom and bust: energy and health in North Dakota

North Dakota is experiencing a huge oil boom due to new advancements in horizontal fracking techniques. Western North Dakota sits atop the Bakken oil formation, an area estimated to hold up to 34 million barrels of oil. At the highest count, the number of oil rigs present in North Dakota reached 218 last May.

Williston is an oil boom town in North Dakota. Rent there is comparable to rent prices in New York City: reaching almost $2000 for a one bedroom apartment. Towns in North Dakota cannot grow fast enough to meet the influx of new workers. Developers have set up ad hoc “man camps” which are dorm style living quarters for men who work in the oil fields.

Salaries for workers in the oil field average out to $70,000 and more than $100,000 with overtime. Job opportunities outside the oil fields are abundant as well. One fast-food restaurant has almost doubled its hourly wage to keep workers.

The oil boom in North Dakota has been compared to this century’s gold rush, North Dakota’s Silicon Valley. Journalists report that it is rare to find voices in opposition to the economic opportunities that come along with North Dakota’s new oil promise. Chip Brown from the NYTimes speaks with Professor Jenkinson, who voices his enthusiasm for the oil boom: “[The oil boom] reverses decades of anxiety about out-migration and rural decline and death . . . . We aren’t going to do anything to jeopardize it. People aren’t interested in stepping back.”

North Dakota has only 700,000 people and a whopping 1.5 billion dollars in its coffers. Unsurprisingly, the speed of development, investment and rapid job creation coincides with a spike in work related accidents and health problems. Medical facilities in North Dakota bear much of the economic brunt caused by uninsured laborers’ inability to pay for medical care. Many of the laborers are transient migrant workers with no official place of residence. As such, hospitals have trouble tracking these workers down to pay their hospital bills.

Not only is human health a growing issue in light of North Dakota’s oil boom, environmental health is a source of grave concern as well.

Investigation conducted by non-profit news outlet ProPublica reveals that there were more than “1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater and other fluids” in 2011. You can use ProPublica’s tracker to see how many gallons of oil were spilled in 2011 alone. The amazing thing is that numbers are but reported numbers from energy companies and do not account for illicit dumping or unreported spillage.

The fraught imbalance between energy extraction, harm to human health, environmental degradation, and economic prosperity is an old tale. Boom and bust, rise and fall, it is important to remember that even within each “boom” there is always an irretrievable loss -- this is the inescapable reality of fossil fuel extraction. The story of this century’s “black gold” is still unfolding.


Miranda Dugan said...

Seeing as this an, "old tale," as you put it; it is such a shame that we still have not learned how to protect against the harms that befall both humanity and the environment with these types of booms.

Scrampbell said...
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Scrampbell said...

I will be interested to see how this plays out for farmers and consumers in the long run. A lot of publications and news stories lately are featuring farmers who are attempting to raise food and livestock on land near or on fracking sites--only to discover anything cultivated on the land is toxic and unfit for consumption. The temporary economic benefits of this "boom" could be mitigated in the near future by agricultural environmental catastrophe.

Erin L said...

At what point will our collective memory remember that "booms" are just that, temporary explosions that are not sustainable? It seems that the high mobility that is experienced in some rural communities compounds the danger of forgetting our history. And the old saying does say that if we don't remember our history, we are doomed to repeat it. In areas where farm, ag and natural resource workers are migratory, how can rural communities support a collective memory and learn from the mistakes of our past?